How to Improve Your Reading

N. Sivin

Like everyone else at Penn—not only undergraduates, but graduate students, teachers, and administrators—you have more to read than you can cope with. If not, you are wasting your time with too many gut courses.

Almost any career you take up after graduation will pose the same problem of too much reading and too little time. A physician’s failure to read the warnings that accompany each of the drugs she prescribes will kill a certain number of her patients. A plumber who does not master the technical manuals and installation guides will make mistakes that sink his reputation. A businesswoman who does not keep up with catalogues of suppliers, guides to shipping, legislation, tax codes, piles of correspondence, daily announcements on crucial web sites, and so on, won’t be able to compete.

Many deal with this problem by taking speed-reading courses. Formal courses require scheduling inflexible blocks of time, and are usually expensive. The purpose of this guide is to let you learn on your own what such courses teach you. Increasing the number of words per minute that your eyes can take in is always a minor part of learning to read faster, and usually the least important.


The key to coping with paperwork lies in two basic principles:

• Read only what will be useful to you.

• If you are not sure what you want from a piece of writing, read only what you will remember for more than an hour or two.

The reasoning behind these principles is simple. Most authors do not write specifically for you, but for some audience that may or may not include you. Why waste your time crawling sentence by sentence through an argument meant to convince people who are already specialists in the topic? The first step in reading anything that will take more than a few minutes is to learn what you are looking for, whether the reading contains it, and—if so—where to find it.


The way to put the two principles into practice is simple: spend the first five or ten minutes examining the piece of writing and answering these questions:

1. What does it contain that I will find useful to know?

2. What is its proposition; that is, what does it want to convince readers is the case? Every piece of expository prose is an argument in that sense, and the key to understanding it quickly is coming to grips with its argument.

3. What kinds of evidence does it use to support its argument? The answer you want is not (for instance) "primary sources in German," but "testimony from witnesses whose reliability the author critically evaluates," or "sociological studies that the author trusts without giving reasons to trust them."

4. What does it conclude?

5. Finally, out of its proposition, evidence, and conclusions, what is worth while for me to remember?

How do you answer these questions? Questions 1 and 5 are a matter of self-awareness, or a clear sense of why someone else has asked you to read whatever it is. In the latter case, if you are not sure, find out, or you will be wasting valuable time. If, for instance, a course syllabus has not explained its structure and how its readings are related, the instructor has an obligation to explain to you. Ask her.

Questions 2–4 are the responsibility of the author. Anyone who writes expository prose ought to answer them clearly, or to make it as easy as possible for you to answer them. There is no standard procedure for answering them, so you will want to know how to find answers. There are several ways to do that.

• If your author cares about clarity, he will give you answers to nos. 2–4 in a form that you don’t have to search for. You will find them at the beginning or at the end, or both.

• Some authors begin with something that will pique readers’ interest, or end with remarks that will inspire readers to think beyond the limits of the paper or chapter. If that seems to be true, look just after the introduction, or just before the afterthoughts.

• If an author is not considerate enough to make it easy, there are other tricks you can use. If there are section divisions, read what follows each heading. If there are not, you are dealing with a thoughtless writer. The only efficient way to get the drift of the argument is to read the lead sentences of each paragraph. If the author is so unskilled that he doesn’t use lead sentences to summarize the point of each paragraph, avoid reading the book or article if you can. If not, you are stuck with skimming.

Even if you have to scan lead sentences, it should be possible to answer questions 1–5 for an article or chapter of 20 to 30 pages in no more than ten minutes. If the author is competent, five minutes should be enough.

Learning How

Obviously you are not going to quadruple your speed the first time you try this active approach to reading. But if you approach it systematically, you will quickly gain speed. Do this:

Choose a number of examples, for instance, all the readings for a given humanities or social science course. Begin with one reading. Working against the clock, see how long it takes to answer all five questions. As soon as you have done so, write an abstract of the reading in three to four sentences that answers all of them. Obviously, what you have to say about points 1 and 5 will be from your own point of view. It is important to make sure that your summary of points 2-4 state the author’s viewpoint. If you are not sure, go back and see whether you have done that accurately. The abstract as a whole should encompass the author’s view as well as your own, without mixing them up. That is a useful skill, and a good reason to write abstracts. They are also, by the way, an excellent resource for refreshing your memory about a piece of writing, whether before a midterm exam or fifteen years later.

The first time you try this exercise, it may take you twenty minutes, or even longer, to assess the reading and write the abstract. That doesn’t matter. The point is to keep it up until you can do it regularly in ten minutes, and it becomes habitual. Refuse to read mechanically, word by word and page by page.

Remember that this exercise is only a preliminary to reading more effectively. Your answers to the questions I have outlined, and your abstract, simply tell you what part of the reading is worth spending time on. In many cases, it will be only a very small part. In most, they will tell you what to read and what to skip. Occasionally you will come across something that, because of its interest to you and the skill with which it is written, is worth reading from beginning to end. Not wasting time on things that contain little worth remembering will leave you time to do that without feeling rushed.

Copyright reserved by Nathan Sivin. Please email
nsivin! at sas! dot upenn! dot edu! (but use normal form and omit the exclamation points)
with comments and corrections.

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Last Modified 2004.9.24