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.”
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.
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.