I was reading a book recently that opened rather slowly. I found myself dragging along through it, the dozen pages I read feeling like they took longer than they should have. But then I reached a spot where the action picked up, and suddenly the pages were flying by. Part of it was that I was more engaged in the story and therefore less aware of the passage of time, of course. But when I stepped back and actually became conscious of it, my actual reading speed had increased dramatically as well; my eyes were fairly tripping over themselves to get to the next sentence and find out what happened.
Which got me thinking about reading speeds and speed reading. Staples has a nifty online tool that measures your reading speed and comprehension. It’s very basic and takes only about 30 seconds to complete, but it returns your reading speed in words per minute and plots it on a graph relative to other benchmarks.
When I’m reading for pleasure, my default pace is about 250 words per minute – I tend to read lazily, closer to speaking pace. But when I want to – such as when I’m reading a particularly tense section, or if I’m trying to get through something quickly – I can bump that up to as much as 600 words per minute. The average speed across all adults is about 300 wpm. So-called speed-readers apparently read at 1000-1500 wpm. (The speed-reading champion is reported to have read at 4700 wpm, but that’s just crazy.) Business professionals and others who have to do a lot of reading as part of their jobs may read at about 600 wpm.
The act of reading is composed of three steps, repeated over and over until we reach the end of the text: fixation, or pausing the eye on a word(s); saccade, or the act of moving the eye to the next word(s); and comprehension, the pause the brain requires to understand the words/phrase. It takes a third to half a second to complete a full set of steps. This is one part of what determines our reading speed. (More on this in a moment.)
The other thing that encourages us to read at a slower pace is called “subvocalization”. It refers to the way we actually pronounce the words silently in our mind the way we would if we were reading out loud. We are, in both senses of the phrase, reading to ourselves. Although we tend to read a bit faster than the average speed of speech (around 175 wpm), the addition of tone and inflection to the words in our mind keeps our brain from processing the words more quickly.
One technique of speed reading, then, is to eliminate the subvocalization. Instead of viewing the word and mentally pronouncing it as you comprehend it, you view it, comprehend it, and move on to the next before your brain can pronounce it. Something that has been thought to possibly help with this is tracing your finger (or a pen or some other pointer) along the line of text as you read; this forces your eye to move at a constant pace across the text and doesn’t allow your brain time to pause to pronounce the words.
Once subvocalization is eliminated, this allows for a second component of speed reading called chunking. The brain is capable of grouping objects into a single object that is understandable as a whole at a quick glance. This is most clearly seen in counting. For instance, you will recognize this in a fraction of a second as five dots, without actually having to count each dot:
The same principle can be applied to text. We already do it at a word level, seeing specific letter groupings as a whole word without having to look at each letter individually. As an easy extension of this, determiners such as “the” or “a” can be lumped with the noun to which they refer, so the brain can recognize “the horse” with a single comprehensive moment, rather than processing “the” and “horse” separately. However, allowing the eye to view, and the brain to process, multiple complex words at once will also speed up your reading speed. Take, for instance, the following sentence:
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
I’ve inserted extra spaces to emphasize the word groupings, but you might notice that your eye takes in “brown fox” as a single unit when you glance at it. If you only have to repeat the fixation-comprehension-saccade cycle four times when reading this sentence, instead of nine, your overall reading speed will roughly double. The more words you’re able to take in and comprehend at once, the faster you’re able to read.
Like anything, this takes practice, but with practice you can regularly improve. Think of all the books you can get through if you’re reading twice as fast as you do now! At 250 words per minute, it would take me about 6 hours of straight reading to finish a 90,000 word novel. Because six hours is a long time to sit in one spot, it tends to take me an entire day to finish off a novel of this length, as I’m regularly up to make tea, or lunch, or walk the dogs, etc. However, if, with practice, I managed to maintain my 600 wpm pace for an entire book, I could read that same 90,000 word novel in about 2.5 hours – much easier to do in a single sitting!
And this might be the best part – just imagine the dent you could finally make in that ever-growing To-Be-Read pile…..
Incidentally, and as an aside, I was curious about how fast agents read since they have to do a lot of reading as part of their job. My agent, Rachael Dugas of Talcott Notch Literary, was nice enough to humour me with a few answers. Here’s her response:
Manuscripts [requested/read per week]: anywhere between 2 & 8, depending on whether I’m focusing on queries or backlogged submissions that week and whether I’m just reading or editing. If I am just reading a new client work, I usually save that for the weekend or evenings. If I am doing edits that’s something I will work on during the work day. I think I read slightly faster than average–although I also think some agents will stop when they feel themselves disengage with a manuscript and I try to read to the end always. (Unless it’s truly terrible or there’s a glaring problem apparent early that I know I can’t or don’t want to fix.) If I am literally not doing anything else (I often switch back and forth between tasks) I can get through a whole manuscript of that length in a day. Again, if I am editing, that number probably triples. If I had to pick an average number, I would say I probably read 4 a week, on average.
I took the [Staples' reading speed] test and got 309 words per minute, which was 24% faster than the national average. However, the first time I read way faster and failed the little test–but I do think that’s more indicative of the way I read as an agent anyway. Now, as an English major, I slowed it down for comprehension, and when I edit I think I read like that too, but if I’m just trying to get the flavor of a manuscript, I go with that faster, less critical style of reading.
However, I also think it’s important to add that how fast an agent reads is only one part of the picture. Sometimes I will go back and re-read. Sometimes the phone won’t stop ringing or co-workers are feeling extra chatty. Sometimes I struggle to get through something. Sometimes I spend all day doing queries/e-mails and only read a manuscript for an hour or two. Every day is different and every agent is VASTLY different.