My Speed-reading Breakthrough Can Be Yours

I’ve had a personal speed-reading breakthrough that will really help some writers.

It’s impossible to become a decent writer (fiction or nonfiction) without reading a lot of the type of stuff you’re trying to write. We know this at gut level. We’ve heard Stephen King say it:

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. It’s that simple.”

But so many of us fiction writers don’t read enough fiction to clue our subconscious minds into the game. It’s subtle training we get from novels, but it’s vital to our success.

For me, there were two related hurdles…

1. I’m naturally a slow, careful reader. Too much test taking, maybe.

Unfortunately, reading slowly turns out to be more work per word than reading faster, especially in fiction. (I know this now from personal experience.)

Despite taking a speed-reading course during college and using various speed-reading software off and on ever since, until recently I’ve never had a total breakthrough where the words just flowed off the page into my mind with zero effort.

Before this week I’ve only had limited improvement that always felt awkward, and always made me miss a lot of content, especially the emotion.

2. As an inefficient reader, it’s always been hard to find novels that give me more energy than they take. (A page-turner gives more energy than it takes, but this key definition varies greatly depending on how easily the reader’s mind takes in written words.)

For fast readers, novels that would bore a slow reader can be thrilling. I’ve seen it.

My breakthrough came after reading half of The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle.

He points out experimental data showing that the wrapping of myelin (by the brain’s oligos) around the arms of neurons can increase the flow of information by an astonishing amount:

“The increased speed and decreased refractory time combined to boost overall information-processing capability by 3,000 times – broadband indeed.”

Just as importantly, he teaches us that we have direct control over the process because “neurons that fire together wire together.”

The only signal telling the oligos to wrap myelin around a specific group of neurons performing any type of mental or physical job is the fact that the neurons are firing together (at the same time). We can control that signal through a type of practice that eliminates as many variables as possible, focusing the myelination on the group of neurons that does the job with the greatest accuracy and precision.

Coyle’s book is loaded with examples of world-class athletes doing exactly this. Ya gotta read it!

All we need to do to gain a skill as miraculous as speed-reading is to relentlessly practice every day for as long as it takes. But we shouldn’t practice those long hours you’re imagining.

Less is more here, because it’s the isolated, focused firing of the select nerve bundles we’re after, reproducing their firing as cleanly as possible for brief sessions, not hours of muddy “practice” where “mistakes” are myelinated as heavily as the targeted mental skill we’re after.

OK, it’s one thing to hear those words, but quite another to understand the mechanism by which they work, and from there to know within yourself, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your “impossible” dream is achievable.

I was lucky. I’d accidentally experienced the magic of intense focused practice several times before in my life.

One of those involved shooting a basketball. I started out as a terrible shooter, spent several months under the basketball goal alone, standing in one spot, isolating my arms and hands by holding the rest of my body completely still, and shooting a hundred or so shots per day. Not a lot of work involved.

In a few months I started having unbelievable shooting streaks in games of three-on-three after the regular games. On several nights, in those three-on-three sessions, everything I shot went in. And they were feeding me the ball. I couldn’t believe it.

Years later I decided to see if I could learn to play drums again.

I played drums as a kid but hadn’t touched them much as an adult. And it showed. I sucked.

I bought a Yamaha set (with incredibly good sound, typical of Yamaha drums), put earplugs in my ears and practiced drums like an adult. I broke things down, watched videos, insisted to myself that I could do whatever impossible things the professionals were doing if I practiced each move in isolation with detailed attention to letting the stick to do the fast work by bouncing naturally. Not forcing it. But always starting slowly and moving precisely.

Although I don’t believe I ever regained the speed I had as a kid, nor the ability to keep accurate time, I learned to do things that I thought were literally impossible as a teenager. Fast triplets on a symbol with one hand. A weird heel-toe kick drum technique. Three against four with other things going on. I even managed to do a half decent one-handed roll at one point. It almost made me wish I had a rock band again.

So when I read the talent code, something clicked. I knew for myself that this wasn’t mere theory.

I went back to my speed-reading software, Spreeder (no affiliation), set the speed a little beyond my ability to comprehend well, and hammered away at it relentlessly, every single day, for several months.

I only practiced about 15 minutes a day, though. I think that was important. When I practiced, I tried to get out of my own way and let my brain do the work, like they tell you in Shop-101 with power tools: “Let the tool do the work, don’t force it. Relax.”

And wow.

Two nights ago I was in one of my frustrating searches for a novel that grips me, and finally ran into Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.

I started reading this crisp, first person, present tense story and could not believe how the words were flowing from the page into my head. Effortlessly! I read for several hours at probably three or four times my normal speed, not missing a word, not missing the emotion of the characters, not compromising my internal visualization of the scenes.

It felt like a miracle. Make that a brain transplant.

The most exciting thing was that feeling – as rare to me as an honest politician – that some form of magical energy is flowing from a book into my soul.

When it happens, you suddenly realize it’s going to be more difficult to stop reading than to go on. Nonfiction routinely gets me into the ballpark, but fiction? Almost never.

It was about 1:45 AM when I forced myself to stop reading. Forced myself.

Wheee!!!

Yes, Blake’s story is off-the-charts wonderful and the writing is high quality stuff in my view, but being able to read it effortlessly brought the whole experience up into the realm of euphoria.

If you’re one of the thousands of fiction writers who feels that ideally you should read more fiction, my breakthrough can be yours.

All you do is to read half of “The Talent Code” by Coyle, get yourself the best speed-reading software you can find, (I like Spreeder) practice “deliberately” and let nature take its course.

I’m living proof that speed-reading is possible for naturally slow readers.

You know, I remember Shawn Coyne on one of his and Tim’s amazing podcasts saying something to the effect that, “As a New York editor, you learn to speed read right away.” When I heard him say that, it sort of confirmed what I was already starting to believe: I can do this.

I was right.

You can do it, too. No sweat. You’re already an excellent reader. I’d put money on you.

Warmest regards,
Talmage

 

66 thoughts on “My Speed-reading Breakthrough Can Be Yours

  1. If I don’t like what I am reading I just take it to mean I am not a good fit for that writer. To me excessive unnecessary technical terms will have me tossing the book in two point five seconds. You want to “hypnotize” your reader…you hypnotize in real life with a lot of details that are interesting and open to interpretation. But if a writer is writing a bunch of technical stuff then the reader has to stop and go what the heck does that mean…..let me grab the dictionary…..your taking them out of the flow…..they are going to toss the book…..also with non fiction books I’ll skip the fluff….I won’t read writers accomplishments life stories etc….(I skip that) I want to read what I came to read and after that I stop reading. I will look at the book you suggest reading.

  2. I have just recommend this article to a couple of friends who are slow readers and are having difficulties. I, myself, am a speed reader. I can speed read my way through a 1,000 page novel in about four days if it wasn’t my sole focus. If it was, then.. two days.
    And not just reading but that and appreciating the literature/ story.

    • I know what you mean, some of the “speed reading” I’ve done in the past is just a form of skimming. That’s OK for some things, but it misses the emotion in a great story and the details of a technical article.
      Thanks for recommending my article to your friends. Hope they read, “The Talent Code,” by Daniel Coyle. It can be a life-changing book.

  3. Wow. Very interesting piece. I recommended this article to a couple of my friends. I, myself, am a speed reader. I can speedily read my way through a 1,000 page novel in about four days whiles doing other activities required of me. However, if i was to solely focus on it only, then it’ll be two days max.

      • hey ya long time no chat .. back to blogging, vlogging and got this wonderful timely message great comments here I too wish I learned better reading habits as a kid. The timely thing is I just got the book Talent Code and going to get the audible too. just to help my cogitive stuff move along. Oh the book is great by the way. Hope all is well with you and yours. Your health and all that good stuff going smoothly. blessings donna maria

        • Hi Donna! So glad you’ve got that book, Talent Code. It’s amazing.

          The reading habits I learned as a kid (subvocalizing and reading one word at a time) got me by in school where I had to memorize like a fiend and focus on class notes, but in the real world I found myself struggling to get rid of my old slow reading habits – there’s just an infinite pile of books out there that I want to read!

          Glad you’re vlogging as well as blogging. The success opportunity for people who have the nerve to show their faces on YouTube is still tremendous. Wish I had the right stuff for that. Maybe someday.

          Thanks for your happy comment. Hope all is going extremely well for you and yours! 🙂

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  5. LOVED this post! I already speed read, and have always loved reading as a result. But were you aware that your format is making it difficult to impossible to speed read your posts?

    High contrast or low BOTH slow the brain to a crawl (and give some folks a headache). You can probably do it better than the rest of us, since your brain is already familiar with the words, so you are likely unaware of the struggles for many of the rest of us (especially frustrating for those of us who are used to being able to speed-read).

    If you’d lighten your black background to grey, then see if the contrast between your text & background colors need to be tweaked, I’ll bet you’d attract and keep a greater number of followers. I’d LOVE to follow and to read more that you have written, but must run because a headache is already threatening to send me straight to bed.

    WONDERFUL post, however.
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  6. Thank you for your follow. Sorry for the delayed response. This is a wonderful writing for speed reading. I have a kindle version of the Bible. It has a scroll function with different speeds. I learned speed reading techniques but I find my eye movement still retract. Anyway, your recommendation of the software sounds interesting. I may look into it.

    • Thanks for the tip on the Kindle scrolling function. I just did a google search looking for that and found there’s something that shows one word at a time at whatever speed you select. That sounds like fun, but I don’t think it’s related to the scrolling feature you mentioned. I’ll keep looking.

      Thanks for reading several chapters of my story, Hapa Girl DNA. I’m working on the second draft now, trying to be less preachy and less stingy with words. Also trying to “raise the stakes” in most of the chapters. It needs more conflict, for sure. Writing fiction is such fun! Hope I get good enough to hold readers from start to finish.

      • Yes, holding readers to start to finish is the key to success in fiction or nonfiction. Steve Isaacson who wrote Steve Jobs biography kept my interest very well. when Jobs approached him to write the biography, Isaacson didn’t know Jobs then. He wrote the biographies for Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein thought, ‘who are you to equate yourself with them?’ Eventually he got to know Jobs. He visited him and talked (interviewed) him until almost the end of Jobs’ life. It’s good read if you haven’t read it yet.
        Oh the kindle scrolling only comes with one version of the Bible I purchased.

  7. It sounds as if speed-reading is akin to meditation, during which the brain is highly focussed and being trained to “sit” like an eager puppy. Although I consider myself a slow reader, it’s not something I’ve ever wanted to correct… the luxury of enjoying fine fiction is the same as eating fabulous food or drinking a delicious beverage. It’s something to be savoured. On the other hand, and like you, I love to learn and am a huge science geek. Over the years, I’ve taught myself to scan content and selectively take in a condensed version of the learning points. I’ll check out the speed-reading book you suggest, and thanks! As they say in French “Je vais me coucher moins bête ce soir.”

  8. Great post. I’m a very slow reader partly because I don’t want to miss anything, but it can take me months to get through a book putting in only an hour or two a night. This makes perfect sense. I’m going to give it a go. Thanks!

    • Glad to hear you’re going for it. Probably the biggest factor for me was practicing with the software for ten to fifteen minutes every day for quite a few months. And of course, reading most of “The Talent Code” gave me full confidence that it would work if I persisted long enough. 🙂 The mechanism is solid science: myelination triggered by use of the specific neuronal pathway.
      Good luck and thank you for your comment.

  9. wow this is a great post… interestlying i have been reading more than writing. I did not get this in my inbox and looked to see if I was still following you. I was that ws good but WP google or whatever is not sending your post over. Well, with that said… i know I changed host so could have been a hiccup in the delievery. Oh if so … here is my link to my blog if u r interested if not that is ok. oh i remember we spoke about my writing fiction I started it, but u r the only on that knows about it I am settting into my memoir blog and then letting it go from there or i will make it it’s own page.
    Now getting back to you post I need to read again and print it out… I think it will have good things for me to enhance and heal upon. I really do with my Aphasia and all. 🙂 blessings and thanks bunches i look forward to getting you updates I hope this fixes it. 🙂

    • I’m so glad you found something useful in my post.

      I’m not sure about the mechanics of wordpress.com and how they inform people of of posts. I think they just include the new posts of people you follow in your “Reader.” There is also a way to sign up for email notification of posts, but I’m not sure if I have that set up on my blog.

      I’ve got a small “reader’s group” which consists of a few hundred email addresses I’ve collected in exchange for an eBook I wrote a few years ago, “Writing Meaningful Page-turners,” but I’ve only contacted the people on the list twice in the last few years. I need to get busy with that.

      October was renal stones, pyelonephritis and and sepsis. Still have a PICC line for IV antibiotics. Surgery to remove another stone on the left, probably Nov 9th.

      Meanwhile I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo which starts today. They want a 50,000 word novel (first draft) in one month. It sounds so impossible I just have to give it a try.

      I’m glad to hear that you’re writing fiction. Writing stories has really enriched my life. I’ve always read a lot of nonfiction, but finally I’m finding it easier and easier to read fiction with interest. Hopefully it will improve my storytelling.

      It sounds like you already read plenty of fiction. That’s a huge advantage. I hope you enjoy every minute of the creative process. 🙂

      I hope speed-reading will somehow have a positive effect on your aphasia. Sometimes I wonder if speed-reading, at least for some people, isn’t a process of teaching the right hemisphere how to read.

      • Hello M.
        thank you your nice reply, Yes, I love your writings and this one I found very good for me and my journey.I am sorry for you woes… and hope the best and get better soon. Was that tough for you. I hope you get the best medical care that is offered and they are very compassionate, careful all that good stuff you need always. Keep me posted on the Surgery 9 nov u said. Blessing I am sure all willl be good for you. They are so much better these days with med procedures.

        Oh re my fiction people do not realize this but I introduced it in this blog post with out mentioning it here …http://rosaryandredsox.com/usa-recognizes-october-italian-heritage-month/ just telling you … it is a novel based on a true about my mother. It is going to be sooooo good. I need to finish my memoir, but do I have to. I can have 2 books going. Some think that is too much and confusing. See, I did architure and interoir design for 20+ years i worked on more tnat one, two or three projects at a time… i know it is diff for me now but hey i feel it is calling me sometimes:)

        re nanowrimo you can do it … i am a rebel though not folowing the rules of 50,000 words … more like 5,000 i will not win. see, I feel if you can do it great. I can try but, humm i will see. If u want to be nano buddies or anyone else… my buddy name is Donna Maria. If you do not want no problem. It is good to talk here.
        I encourage u to try it as best you can and if you win that is great and if you do not that is great too… there are other things to win like recouperating from surgery. you! your life..family .. ect that is how I feel did i make it worse for you ? I hope not. I am here to cheer you on.
        I am off to order the book you mentioned “The Talent Code” by Coyle sounds so good for me. 🙂 blessings donna marie not to be confused with donna maria

        • Hi Donna. Thanks for your kind words and encouragement.

          After signing up for NaNoWriMo I developed an infection with Clostridium difficile. That took me away from the computer for about a week, so I haven’t done anything with the NaNo project. I’m feeling stronger today, though. 🙂

          The surgeon postponed my surgery until later in Nov. Maybe the 30th.

          I’m sure you can handle writing two books at the same time with your background and talent. I know what you mean about feeling a “calling” to write certain things. I think it’s best to answer those calls as soon as possible.

          It’s so generous and kind of you to offer to be nano buddies with me. Wow. Thank you. Since I haven’t written a word yet (due to lack of energy, secondary to infection and antibiotics) I’m thinking I shouldn’t have tried to tackle nano this year. Hopefully next November I’ll be healthy and productive again. Thank you for cheering me on. 🙂
          Glad you’re reading “The Talent Code.” It’s helped me a lot already. A few months back I decided that I needed to make my story less boring by adding more conflict, so I practiced a half hour a day on writing anything that popped into my head involving arguments and verbal conflict for a couple of weeks and immediately found myself writing several of the less boring chapters of “Hapa Girl DNA.” 🙂

          Take care. Thank you for your kindness.

          Talmage

      • Hello M.
        thank you your nice reply, Yes, I love your writings and this one I found very good for me and my journey.I am sorry for you woes… and hope the best and get better soon. Was that tough for you. I hope you get the best medical care that is offered and they are very compassionate, careful all that good stuff you need always. Keep me posted on the Surgery 9 nov u said. Blessing I am sure all willl be good for you. They are so much better these days with med procedures.

        Oh re my fiction people do not realize this but I introduced it in this blog post with out mentioning it here …http://rosaryandredsox.com/usa-recognizes-october-italian-heritage-month/ just telling you … it is a novel based on a true about my mother. It is going to be sooooo good. I need to finish my memoir, but do I have to. I can have 2 books going. Some think that is too much and confusing. See, I did architure and interoir design for 20+ years i worked on more tnat one, two or three projects at a time… i know it is diff for me now but hey i feel it is calling me sometimes:)

        re nanowrimo you can do it … i am a rebel though not folowing the rules of 50,000 words … more like 5,000 i will not win. see, I feel if you can do it great. I can try but, humm i will see. If u want to be nano buddies or anyone else… my buddy name is Donna Maria. If you do not want no problem. It is good to talk here.
        I encourage u to try it as best you can and if you win that is great and if you do not that is great too… there are other things to win like recouperating from surgery. you! your life..family .. ect that is how I feel did i make it worse for you ? I hope not. I am here to cheer you on.
        I am off to order the book you mentioned “The Talent Code” by Coyle sounds so good for me.🙂 blessings donna marie not to be confused with donna maria

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  12. Hi there, and thanks for stopping by my Editing post the other day. I have shared this post to my blog as I found it useful. I have also tagged it as external, and obviously it links back here giving you credit.

      • I would say so. I hit the press this button so it appears on mine, and credits the source. I can use the reblog feature instead if you’d rather. Never used either before, and don’t want you to be uncredited

        • I’m just happy you found the post worthy of your attention. I didn’t know there was a technical difference between reblogging and “press this.” Whichever method works for you is great with me. 🙂 Thanks again.

            • I appreciate that. I recently finished an online “first draft” of an sf novel, “Hapa Girl DNA” which I’m still trying to decide whether or not to fix (vs abandoning) in terms of the boredom factor. It picks up a little after chapter 20, I think, so you might read a few paragraphs after that point if you have time.
              I like the way you do videos, by the way. I can only imagine the technical difficulty of doing video so well. Keep up the great work!

              • I really appreciate that! They are actually quite low tech, and I only had one major difficulty a week or so ago when the videos were losing the audio synchronicity. When I figured out what was causing it, it boggled my mind. I have a script open on my screen, and use the webcam app on my laptop. And if the webcam started recording before I switched to the script, it went out of synch. Really, really stupid, but fortunately I figured it out and it doesn’t happen any more. Just assembling the next one, I will have a look at some of the draft after that. If you like my videos, you have my permission to reblog if you feel it is relevant to your readers, as I suspect you’d be doing me a favour.

                • I like your approach to life. Being happy and learning. I feel exactly the same way about it.
                  I’m going through the inconvenience of a couple of kidney stones at the moment, so I’m a little distracted lately. I need to get my head back into my novel and see if it’s salvageable. I like what you said on the latest video to the effect that words you delete are never really lost. So true.

                  Stay enthusiastic and happy. You’re making the world a better place with your energy.

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