Every time I feel like my articles are long, I take a deep breath and refrain from slapping myself. There are many 8000-word monster pieces out there, a size I don’t even come close to most of the time. But don’t get me wrong, a lot of these posts are plainly awesome. Which is exactly the problem!
Exactly! Noone has time to read all those interesting but huge articles. But I don’t really want to skip them as well, as they’re packed with tons of useful information, that can really make a difference. This is why I utilize a technique called skimming, that allows me to go through these articles faster and read only as necessary.
What is skimming?
Skimming is a form of rapid reading (or speed reading), and it is about looking through a text quickly to get the general idea (the gist). It works best with non-fiction (or factual) material, as this type of content is the one that usually has better layout and ‘formatting’ for you to extract information from.
Like everything else, skimming is a skill, and you can actually get better at it. That will then allow you to reduce the time necessary to go through material. It can also help with the overall comprehension of a subject, as it is often used together with your actual studying (more on that in a second).
What you need to keep in mind, though, is that by just skimming through a text, your comprehension will be lower. It is impossible to beat actually reading the text fully. If you feel like you’ve comprehended the content, you probably are still reading too much of the material. In order to skim successfully and effectively, the speed must be fast, the comprehension relatively low, but you need to feel like you grasp the concepts included in the skimmed material. In fact, skimming is a technique heavily based on the concept of the 80/20 rule.
Sidenote: If you want to learn how to speed read, check out the SuperLearner course by Jonathan Levi (Disclaimer: This is an affiliate link)
When to use skimming
1) Topics you know a lot about
Personally, I consistently skim through articles (especially large ones) on topics I know a lot about. It is completely inefficient to read the same things again and again. Therefore, I use skimming to identify the core points of the article, and then I read only parts that I am really interested in, or that contain new information to me. If there are many such parts in an article, then I read it fully, as it probably deserves my attention.
2) Skip as necessary
Let me say this clearly: Just because someone wrote something, it does not mean you have to read it. Feel free (I give you permission) to skip a section if you know it, if you find it boring, or if it is unnecessary to your learning goal. Also, feel free to skip examples if you understand the concept of if you don’t need to be persuaded on the topic.
Use skimming to identify these unnecessary sections beforehand, saving yourself a substantial amount of valuable time.
3) Skim before reading anything (and after)
Probably the best use of skimming is to preview (or pre-read) the material. This is very important, as it allows you to get the main idea of the text and to grasp the important concepts throughout. By skimming ahead, you will greatly increase your comprehension during the actual reading, and thus will make your learning much more effective.
You should also skim after reading a text, or a section, as a way to review the information. This way you also ensure that you’ve comprehended all important parts. If you find you don’t understand something important, make sure to reread it before moving on.
Sidenote: This process is very important in other types of content too, like video. Read my article on how to learn from video to find out more.
4) When you have a lot to read and not much time
If you find yourself with a lot of material to study and not enough time, skimming can save you. First of all, it can really make a difference if you at least know the main concepts on a subject, instead of knowing absolutely nothing. Also, by skimming ahead, you can identify the most important parts to study, which might just be enough for you to achieve your goal.
How to skim effectively
1) Read the full introductions
Authors tend to put a lot of care on the introductions, as that is the best place to explain what the material is about (and to get the reader hooked). Make sure to read the introductory paragraphs in the case of an article, or the introduction chapter in the case of a book to understand what the rest of the content is about. This way you create a foundation to connect what you grasp through skimming.
Also read the table of contents and chapter overviews, to get a roadmap of the content.
2) Use the formatting
It is obvious that you should pay great attention to all heading while skimming, as there lies the gist of the following text. But, there are a lot more formatting elements that authors use, which can greatly assist your skimming process. Such examples are, bold and italic text, bullet lists, ordered lists, indenting, and more.
Pay extra attention to these while skimming. After all, the author used those for a reason. (Also, if you are an author, make sure to use all these formatting elements.)
3) Read the first sentence of each paragraph
The first sentence of each paragraph is often called the topic sentence. The authors usually try to show what the paragraph is about there. By reading through these, you will be able to get a consistent understanding of what the author is talking about. If you don’t get the idea from the topic sentence, or if you find the topic interesting, make sure to read more (maybe the whole paragraph). Also, after reading the topic sentence, look through the paragraph for important information like dates, or text in bold/italic.
Sometimes, it is a good idea to read the last sentence too, especially if there are big paragraphs. Authors tend to summarize the context of their paragraphs there.
4) Captions, images, charts, tables
You should take a few extra seconds to better study images and their captions, as well as charts and tables. These usually illustrate the full essence of the concept. If you understand those, you can probably move on to the next chapter. Read the titles and captions of those elements, and try to understand the information contained in them.
5) Read the last paragraph(s)
The last paragraph(s) of a text, or the final chapter of a book, tend to summarize the concepts in the material. Therefore, these are great for connecting together the insights you’ve gathered through skimming. Similar to the introductions, make sure to read those carefully, and evaluate what you’ve understood against what is written there.
Skimming vs scanning
Skimming should not be confused with scanning, which is another form of rapid reading (or speed reading). While skimming is about looking through a text quickly to grasp the main idea and concepts, scanning is about looking through a text to discover a particular piece of information (an answer to a question).
Scanning is based on knowing well what you are looking for, keeping 1-2 keywords in mind, and then quickly scanning through the text to discover those. Sometimes you will have to look more than once.
Personally, I’ve become pretty good at skimming, as I’ve been doing it unconsciously for years. I tend to read a large number of articles every week, and the way I manage to tackle them is by skimming to identify the most important parts. Then, I usually speed read through those.
As we saw, skimming can be extremely effective in saving you time and enhancing your results. But, keep in mind that it usually needs to be used together with normal reading, if you want to achieve that. Skim through the material before and after studying it, and also use skimming to identify sections that you had better skip.
Call to Action
If you liked this article, please share it with your friends. Also, as you start skimming through reading material, you are going to start saving a lot of time, which you will then be able to spend reading what actually matters to you! I’d love nothing more than to learn about your experience! Leave a comment below, or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.