Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

There’s a famous quip from Woody Allen that goes like this, “I took a course in speed reading. I read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It was about Russia.” There’s a lot of truth in those lines because when writers read for research (and pleasure) they need to find that balance between speed, comprehension, and production. It all comes down to efficiency.

Some folks naturally read faster than others. During my research for this Kill Zone piece, I sourced statistics that the average person reads at the speed of about 200 to 250 words per minute (wpm). That’s like a typical 12 point page spaced at 1.15 inches in 60 seconds. Speed demons can go as high as 400 wpm, but there’s a distinct line where speed becomes counter-productive, and the ability to comprehend and retain those words drastically diminishes.

Other stats I found compared reading speed to conversation cadence. Most of us talk at about 150 wpm which, I read, is the optimal spacing for podcasting and audio books. Cattle auctioneers bark at around 250 wpm, and I once worked with a cop who spoke so fast that no one could understand him—probably blurting out about 300 or more. It was a thing of beauty to listen to his evidence in court.

Here are some other speed reading tidbits.US President John Kennedy reportedly read three major newspapers before his morning coffee cooled. JFK’s rate was around 1,100 and he, himself, said it was his ability to skim for what he was interested in. The World Speed Reading Championship has a six-time winner, Anne Jones, who read at 4,200 wpm with a recorded comprehension at 67 percent.

Then there’s Kim Peek. He’s a savant who has memorized over 9,600 books. No one knows how he does it because Kim’s corpus callosum has been missing since birth. That’s the nerve bundle connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres.

Anyway, back to us mortal writers. We have to read to be able to produce writing. Most of us, myself included, are bookies. We love to read as well as write. Like me, you’re probably a closet bibliomaniac who practices the art of tsundoku. (I linked these words to Wikipedia—you’re welcome.)

Another quote, while I’m in quoting mode, is from Stephen King himself who savantly said, “To be a good writer you must do two things. Read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have the time for reading, then you do not have the tools for writing.” I’ll take King’s advice any day, but the 64-thousand dollar question is, “How do I read quickly but still write efficiently?”

To start with, there are certain limitations built into us writing mortals. They involve interactions between the eye and the brain. Brains are linguistically programmed through instinct. We naturally learn to speak. However, we have to be taught to read, and then we have to practice. A lot, if we’re going to be good readers who can efficiently transpose information into intelligible writing.

When you look at images on a page—letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and symbols—light reflects from the page or screen to the back of your retina. Here a tiny, dot-like feature called your fovea centralis takes the information and passes it to your cerebral cortex for processing. Your cortex decides whether to use the information, store it, or chuck it.

As amazing as your fovea is, it has a limited capacity to function with speed. Foveas are focused fellas, and they only see about three words at a time. That’s because only so much light passes into cell cones in the center of the fovea. Light coming from peripheral page regions, like words to the left and right, fades into the fog of cell rods that aren’t so good at transmitting useful reading information.

There’s more to this reading science than meets the eye. You’re programmed to read in small chunks at a time. Reading scientists call this fixations and saccades. Fixations are the spots where your fovea stops and saccades are the jerk actions between the stops that keep your eye moving across the page.

From what I read and retained, your fovea fixation lasts from about a quarter-second to a full-second. This depends on your mental focus and how much your brain decides that particular info-bit is worth to you. A saccade period is about a tenth-second. Saccades are pretty predictable, and the only control you have is to decide how much you want to skim.

You can’t will or teach your fovea to act faster or look farther. It’s only going to take in about three words between stops. What you can do, however, is to exercise your cortex to retain more, and that comes from reading lots.

When you read a lot, you become more familiar with words that your brain can find useful. You expand your vocabulary as well as your overall knowledge. More understood and informative words equals higher efficiency when it comes to reading fast and retaining more. However, there comes a point where you’re reading too fast and miss too much.

So, is there such a thing as efficient speed reading? A balance? Well, let’s look back to where this craze came from and went to. Travel back to 1958 and meet Evelyn Wood who wrote Reading Skills. She was a Utah school teacher who used a three-point system to make her kids better readers. Evelyn recognized these three efficient reading methods:

Method 1 — Take more information in at a time. She encouraged scanning by moving a finger or pen across a page to increase saccade action.

Method 2 — Eliminate subvocalization. This is the little voice in your head that wants to read out loud rather than be still and absorb information.

Method 3 — Eliminate regressive eye movements. Evelyn encouraged students to read it right the first time and not to keep going back over things.

Evelyn Wood was probably the mother of all speed reading courses. She went on to offer Reading Dynamics and made a ton of money by teaching adults to read faster and absorb better. Some historians question Wood’s effectiveness at significantly improving speed, but you can’t argue with her worldwide exposure.

Forward to 2020 and the app age. This speed reading thing hasn’t gone away. Google “speed reading” and you’ll find tools like Spritz, Spreeder, Outread, Acceleread, and Reedy to help reduce your TBR pile. Do any of these apps really work? I don’t know, because I have my own system for researching and writing that I’d like to share with you.

As I mused, there’s a balance between time and efficiency. It depends on what you want to do with your reading material. I’m not one to “speed read” a novel, but it pays to rip through resource material as quickly as possible to write an article like this.

Case Study: Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

I spent five hours researching this post. I have a fair amount of experience doing online articles, as I spent two years working with my daughter in her content writing agency. That business pays by the article. Not the word count or by time. A typical content piece is 2,200 words and to make a decent hourly return, you have to be somewhat speedy in reading your research.

I used the keywords “Speed Read” to “Google” information. I found 14 suitable articles online ranging from Psychology Wiki (which I had no idea existed—you’re welcome again) to Wired, Lifehacker, and the BBC. I copied the content and pasted it on a Word.doc which is what I religiously do for research. I formatted the doc in Ariel 10 point with 1.15 spacing and set the color on black with a white background.

Then, I printed each article on 8 ½ x 11 and went at them with a yellow highlighter and a red pen. I used a side page for black-inked notes. By this time, my cortex knew what it was looking for so, as my fovea followed my saccade spacing, I yellow-highlighted interesting stuff and red underlined really interesting stuff. I then made black notes of key points and I moved it along.

The printed 14 documents contained 21,823 words. That’s an average of 1,559 per piece. Out of the 5 hours in research time, about 2 ½ were spent in reading the printed docs and making notes. 2 ½ hours is 150 minutes, so my words-per-minute was 145. That’s no speed demon by any measure.

However, my comprehension, retention, and piece production were (in my opinion) reasonably efficient. Sure, I could probably have scanned the stuff at 3 times the rate. But, I wouldn’t have been able to efficiently write this 1,593-word article in 1.75 hours. That’s composing at 906 words per hour or 15.1 words per minute.

Do I have room to increase my writing efficiency? Certainly. Probably we all do. But is speed reading to save research time worth the reduced value of the final product? I say no.

What about you Kill Zoners? What’s your view on speed reading, and what tips on writing efficiency do you have? Please drop them in the comment box.

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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner investigating sudden, strange, and unexplained deaths. Now Garry has reinvented himself as an indie writer who’s working on a series of based-on-true-crime stories. His latest venture, Beyond The Limits – Book #7, is scheduled for release in early January, 2021.

Besides writing at the Kill Zone and on his popular blog at www.DyingWords.net, Garry Rodgers spends his spare time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. To his aghast, there was a skim of frost on Garry’s windshield this morning.

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29 thoughts on “Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

  1. Interesting stuff, Garry. When I was just starting real life (post acting, new husband and lawyer) I set a goal to read 100 books a year. So I read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (at regular speed!) then took a self-study course called Speed Learning and really upped my reading speed. But speed was not the only goal; you approach nonfiction tactically rather than just opening to page 1 and going to the end.

    The only time I “speed read” fiction is when the style isn’t noteworthy but I’m sufficiently interested in the plot to find out what happens. If, however, the author has a fine style, I read at regular speed to drink it in. This, I believe, expands my own style.

  2. Very deep and enjoyable reading, Garry. I always feel a little smarter after reading one of your posts. We will never know everything there is to know about ourselves — I think that Godel nailed it when he said “The bicycle cannot explain itself” — but we come ever closer.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Jim’s last paragraph in his comments. There is a very popular author of fiction whose books are simple to read and untroubled by descriptions of matters unrelated to propelling the plot ever forward. I can read one of their four hundred page tomes in four hours. With someone who is more literary — James Lee Burke or Cormac McCarthy — I like to take my time. The prose demands it.

    Thanks for another intriguing post. I hope that skim of frost doesn’t evolve into snow one morning.

  3. “Propelling the plot forward” – the holy grail of storytelling. They tell me the secret is out there and if I ever find the magic formula, I’ll share it in a post. Snow on southern Vancouver Island, Joe? The odd time it happens this place goes into a lockdown far worse that any pandemic can cause.

    • I taught that. Go to the website linked to my name and click on “Interlocking Questions” and “Keeping the Reader Reading” which was part of one of my courses.

  4. Great post. I’m curious to time my reading and I’m also grateful there’s a name for my disorder of book hoarding. I’m glad I’m not alone.

    When I was a first grader, I had a lot of trouble reading and received extra attention in school. That actually led to me overachieving in reading. I became fast and my comprehension was off the charts. Sadly, my math skills were in Gump territory. In college, I thought I was a really fast reader but then I entered law school and that will make anyone read faster. At first, the cases read like gibberish but by your third year you’re racing through them and pulling out the handful of relevant points.

    • Thank you, Philip. I had no idea what the disorder was called – now I know what I have and apparently there’s no cure for it except a house fire.

      I’ll bet that 3rd year law school puts the reading afterburners on. Finding the relevant points – that was what this blog post’s intention was and I hope it worked. Enjoy your day!

  5. A lot in today’s post. Most of my reading now is technical, not entertainment. I need to retain, or at least know how to find again, a lot of what I read. I am probably a fairly slow reader but high on retention. I guess I should have timed this page to find out!

    I read both screens and paper. I fall asleep reading my phone.

    I am a licensed pilot. This is what a busy air traffic control sound like. All you need to do is know what you are being told, copy what is needed, and 100% follow instructions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toTXCaa0A-0

    My father was an attorney. He warned me that the biggest obstruction to research was the case before and the case after the one you are looking for.

    • Alan, This is a great example of paying attention to what you need to know. I’m also a licensed pilot, though I’m no longer active. There’s so much going on in the cockpit, and the pilot has to learn to ignore the noise and concentrate on what’s important. Thanks for reminding me.

      • I work part time delivering pizzas. One night things got wild, about 120 pizzas in an hour. I ended up cutting and boxing pizzas. I just kept moving, calling out orders, getting things done. Afterwards some ask how I stayed so calm in all that. “Airplane school. I literally had a class in staying calm in emergencies. The instructor liked opening the window at altitude to see what you did.”

    • Thanks for sharing the video, Alan. Fascinating! I watched the follow-up one of the air show approach, too. I live near the west approach to Vancouver International Airport and see the heavies go over all the time. Sometimes I tune into YVR air traffic and it never ceases to amaze me how much information passes in such a short time. I like your dad’s take on the legal rabbit hole 🙂

  6. My graduate degrees specialty was 19th Century American and British literature. If I couldn’t read my week’s course work of a Hawthorn and Dickens novel fast with total comprehension, I was dead. Part was a practiced skill, part I simply loved to read, and, finally, I had the ability to read for enjoyment but with my inner English major sitting in the corner making notes and rarely saying anything unless it was important. I used the same skill as a writer, writing teacher, writing contest judge, editor, and book reviewer.

    Talking with my writing students over the years, their problem wasn’t reading fast which isn’t a real necessity for a writer, it was being unable to shut up the inner critic analysing what was supposed to be a fun read and now wasn’t. My suggestion there was to read really talented favorite authors and other genres until the inner critic shut up before going back to other reading.

    Sadly, the most common thought for most of my students was “This is crap. Why can’t I sell my crap?” Or the pro’s version– “This is crap. Why isn’t my crap selling as well as this?” That thought rarely goes away.

  7. Garry, Thanks for this great information! I tried speed-reading through the article, but found it so interesting I had to go back and re-read how the eye processes the written word.

    Like others have mentioned, my reading speed depends on the form and content. I tend to speed through fiction. Some books are like eating a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch — no need to dally over them. But if I get to beautiful prose or a complex plot, I slow down and appreciate the experience like a three course meal.

    I wonder if any research has been done on reading speed on various platforms. I don’t have any data, but I sense I read much faster on my iPad than on paper. (When we downsized our home, I gave up my Bibliomania for ipadomania.)

    There’s a cute app called Elevate that I play every day for a few minutes. It presents the user with several little tests for reading, math, writing, etc. It’s supposed to be aerobics for the brain. Don’t know if it’s working for me, but it’s fun.

    • Okay, Kay, you sucked me in on “ipadomania” which I “sped-red” past. I wasted five perfectly good minutes googling it and checking Dictionary.com. Then I activated my subvocalization app and got it 🙂

      From what I read while researching this piece, there’s been a lot of speed reading research done and the conclusion is pretty uniform. Unless you’re some kind of a genius, there’s an input limit after which comprehension/retention become inversely proportionate to the speed of the read.

  8. Great post, Garry. Lots of interesting information. I’d like to work on improving my reading efficiency, but my problem, after a long day, is staying awake to read at all. I’ll be retiring from my day job at the end of the month and hope to increase my reading a lot. Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks Steve. Looking forward to what you have to offer in the upcoming weeks/months/years. I’m a book-to-sleep guy and have a five minute window in which to read in bed before my dreams overtake reality.

  9. I could read well before I started kindergarten. When my first grade teacher tried to force me to use a marker under the line to be read I took it as an insult and refused. I had no patience for those who needed them. I was just built to absorb written language. I know I read faster than a lot of people, but I’ve never been concerned with exactly how fast. Who cares? I read as fast as I want to. Sometimes it’s better to read more slowly, as JH pointed out above. Which reminds me. Who here remembers the Evelyn Woodski Slow Reading Course? https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/evelyn-woodski-slow-reading-course/3007522

  10. Fascinating post, Garry. Love learning new things. 🙂 Alas, I’m not a speed reader. I do skim during research to find what I’m looking for, but I also tend to get waylaid down rabbit holes. I never skim novels. I love how some writers string words together, their cadence and rhythm. I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience by skimming, which is why I’ll never be able to tear through numerous books per week and still find time to write.

  11. Thanks, Sue. I thought you’d absorb this one instead of skim – especially about the speed podcasters aim for 😉 Ah, them pesky wesearch wabbit holes…. woooohhh… Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to tsundoku practice.

  12. Fascinating stuff, Garry. You distilled five hours of research into an informative article that can be read about five minutes. All meat, no gristle, bone, or fat. Thanks!!!

    Now that you’ve taught me what I am, I’ll see ya tsundoku practice!

  13. Interesting post. I definitely could stand to read faster and absolutely wish I could absorb more, especially when reading non-fiction. However I just read at a steady comfortable pace (never timed it). It would be especially wise for me to skim more during research, but it’s just so darn interesting I can rarely make myself do that.

    The only time I skim is when the author (be it fiction or non-fiction) isn’t holding my attention. Otherwise, for me reading is one of the true pleasures in life so I’m not anxious to hurry through it. Would love to be the example mentioned above who can memorize books — that would be totally awesome with nonfiction books and articles.

    You do remind me of a book someone mentioned to me called “Make It Stick” by Peter C. Brown, on strategies for studying/learning and the efficacy of old habits such as highlighting or underlining text, etc. But I haven’t had a chance to read it yet because I haven’t had time. 😎 😎

    • Ah… time. Something all of us writing mortals have been equally allotted. While we’re here, that is.

      BK – I suspect we’re similar vintage. I’m a paper person. Sure, I have to get stuff from the screen and we all do. But, when I read “the efficacy of old habits such as highlighting or underlining text, etc.” I knew we were kindred souls. Long live pen and paper to make it stick.

  14. Very interesting. I don’t know my reading speed, but I sometimes think it’s slow. But then I’ll sit and read without interruption and find it isn’t slow at all. I think it’s more not setting aside the kind of time I would like to for reading.

    I tend to skim news articles, scanning for the salient essence.

    Fiction is entirely different. I liken reading a novel to sipping a fine wine — it is to be savored.

    I spend so much time critiquing and editing that I have to remind myself when reading for pleasure that it is not my job to fix their mistakes. Therefore, I have been practicing the conscious art of ignoring errors. That is helping me increase my reading time without losing the delicate palate of word soup.

    • I like your analogy to sipping fine wine while absorbing a novel, Jeanne. It’s quite the opposite from guzzling news like a beer and then chasing it down with something fiery.

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