Reading skills can change your life. Without any qualification, reading has changed my life for the better. I’ve learned skills, enjoyed many incredible stories and learned about the world. I’ve learned about history, explored the rich depths of science fiction, discovered other countries, learned business ideas and much more.
Like any skill, you can become more effective with practice and an introduction to the key techniques. In this article, I will mainly focus on reading traditional books, which remain deeply valuable despite advances in digital technology. That said, many of these ideas can be adapted to digital reading. These ideas will help you learn and remember more from the books you read.
“Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life.”- Joseph Addison
1) Determine Your Reading Purpose: Leisure or Learning
Generally speaking, there are two broad reasons to read: for leisure or to learn. If you are reading for leisure, developing productive reading skills may not be a priority. That said, you can deepen your appreciation for literature by developing reading skills. In this article, I will focus on reading for learning (with a few examples on leisure and fiction reading here and there).
2) Make Notes In The Book (Yes, You Have Permission!)
Have you ever noticed that most printed books have margins? Those blank spaces make it easy for you to add your own notes! Even better, some business and self-improvement books have blank pages for exercises and other activities. Once you start writing in books, you will slow down and gain more from the experience.
Tip: There is a centuries long tradition of readers writing in their books. For examples and insights on this key reading skill, consult Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books By H. J. Jackson. You will be in good company too: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander Pope, Virginia Woolf, John Ruskin, and William Blake are some of the great authors who have made a habit of writing in their books.
Important Note: Only write in books that you own. Libraries are an excellent resource and your responsibility is to return the book back to the library for others to read in top condition. If you’re reading library books, you can still gain practice in productive reading by implementing the other ideas in this article.
3) Use The Swarm Strategy To Go Deep With Your Reading
I learned the swarm strategy concept from strategist and author Ryan Holiday. In essence, the swarm strategy involves going deep into a topic and learning about it from multiple viewpoints. Holiday also suggests supplementing your learning strategy with non-reading activities where possible. Here are two examples showing how you can use the swarm strategy.
Learning about the Second World War:
With thousands of books to choose from, you have many different options. For example, let’s say you live in Canada, the United Kingdom or the United States (i.e. the Western Allies). Your understanding of the war and its consequences are likely from the perspective of your country. You can apply the swarm strategy by reading about how the war impacted civilians in Europe, seek to understand the Holocaust and read biographies of war time leaders (I recommend Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life for a robust and deep introduction to Winston Churchill).
Learning about marketing:
Marketing is one of the most important business skills you can learn. Fortunately, there are many excellent books you can explore. To apply the swarm strategy, read about marketing form at least three different perspectives. For example, read about specific marketing techniques (e.g. Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords, 4th Edition By: Perry Marshall, Mike Rhodes, and Bryan Todd), read a classic marketing book (Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins) and read about copywriting (The Ultimate Sales Letter by Dan Kennedy)
4) Read About The Author
Who brought you the book you’re reading? Learning about the author can deepen your experience considerably. Last year, I read a biography of Wiliam Shakespeare. I was fascinated to learn about Shakespeare’s work habits. You may not be able to find a full length biographies on every author you read about. Instead, ask these questions to deepen your understanding?
- What books has the author previously published? (i.e. how does this book fit with the rest of the author’s work. Is it new ground or deepening previously explored ground)
- How do books fit into the author’s career (e.g. is the person a full time author, a business expert who writes books on occasion or something else altogether)?
5) Write About What You Read
Writing works wonders on your comprehension and appreciation of reading. You can write full length book reviews (I’ve done that several times and it can be rewarding). You can also write notes on the inside cover of the book to create a short guide that you can easily reference.
Not sure what to write about? Consider these points:
- Does the book provide exercises or templates for you to read? Complete the exercises.
- Does the book reference other books that sound interesting? Make note of the titles.
- Were you struck by the beauty of a particular phrase? Note it.
6) Discuss Your Reading With Other People
In most respects, reading is a solitary habit. However, you can turn reading into a social activity with some planning. For example, you can join a virtual book club where you swap notes and messages with other readers. You can also use a service like Meetup.com to search for book clubs in your area. If you are reading to improve your life or productivity, you will get the best results from discussing your reading with others interested in the same material.
7) Ask Yourself: Do I Agree With The Author? Why Or Why Not?
When you read a good book, it is natural to be become absorbed in the process. Some books are so engaging that you end up staying up all night reading. While passionate, deep reading is admirable, there is more you can do.
Most non-fiction works (and many fiction works) are seeking to prove a point. Explore how the points are developed. Does the author provide footnotes or references to other works? Are they writing based on their own experience? These questions will help you to evaluate your reading more effectively.
8) Explore the context of your reading (i.e. acknowledgements and footnotes)
In most books I read, I often look into the acknowledgements, footnotes and other supporting material. Why? These sections provide extra context that shed new light on the book. The same can also be said of a book’s preface and introduction. In fact, introductions to classic novels and fiction works often explain how the book was translated and why the book has come to be regarded as a classic.
Reading acknowledgements: In some cases, the authors will provide a simple list of names. In other instances, you will learn about the author’s key relationships. You may learn about the contributions played by the editor and who provided the best feedback on the book during the editing process.
Reading footnotes: footnotes and references provide valuable suggestions for further reading and additional details that can open your eyes. You don’t have to read the entire footnotes section – simply take a look whenever the author makes an unexpected or interesting point.
9) File Ideas In A Commonplace Book
“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”
Seneca, Roman philosopher
In an earlier time, books were expensive. You might have bee able to borrow a given book for a short time and then have to retun it. That’s one reason why the commonplace book was developed. You can use a Moleskine notebook, collect notes in a document on your computer, use Evernote or whatever system you like.
Author Ryan Holiday recommends keeping a “Commonplace Book” . He recommends searching for wisdom and ideas that make our lives better. A single example, quote or phrase fro your reading can be powerful. When you record those ideas in a commonplace book, you can easily refer back to what you learned from your reading.
10) Reflect on what you enjoyed in leisure reading
Once you finish a novel, short story, play or some other work of leisure reading, put down the book. The next day, think about what you liked most about the book. Were you excited by the richly imagined world of J.R.R. Tolkien? Were you pleasantly surprised by the relevance of Jane Austen’s reflections on relationships? These observations will help you find other books that you will enjoy in the future.
In fact, this reflection skill will help you ask for recommendations from others. Instead of simply stating that you enjoyed a book, you can explain what aspects of the book you enjoyed.
11) Read Reviews About Your Reading
Reading reviews about books you read can provide a fresh perspective. You can start by reading reviews on Amazon but you don’t have to stop there. You can find outstanding reviews in publications such as the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. In fact, reading thoughtful book reviews equips you with new productive reading skills.
12) Develop “Mind Reading” Powers By Reading Fiction
Did you know that reading fiction can help you understand people better? Researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano have shown that reading fiction helps you to develop a Theory of Mind for other people. In order to access these benefits, the researchers recommend reading literary fiction:
Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from their readers. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.” (Source: Reading literary fiction improves ‘mind-reading’ skills, research shows)
Looking for literary fiction suggestions? Here are two resources to start with:
- 100 Best Novels (Modern Library)
- The Greatest Books of All Time, As Voted by 125 Famous Authors ((Maria Popova, Brian Pickings)
13) Use Aides To Augment Your Reading
Whether you’re reading fiction or non-fiction, you are likely to come across unfamilar ideas, words and more from time to time. Instead of skipping over confusing phrases, take one minute and look up the word in a dictionary (a print dictionary on your shelf or an online dictionary). Likewise, I recommend using Google Maps if your book mentions unfamilar places.
Your imagination is powerful! But you need to give it clear material for the best results.
14) Use A Highlighter (To Prepare To Make Notes)
Using a highlighter is a classic way to engage with the text. Unfortunately, CBS News reports that highlighting is among the least effective reading strategies. However, this technique can be revived if you use it thoughtfully. For example, consider using a multi-step system. You may start by reading a chapter of textbook and highlight a few key phrases. Next, write up notes using your highlights as a guide.
15) Create Study Notes (for tests and academic situations)
Let’s say you are reading a technical book such as the Project Management Body Knowledge (i.e. PMBOK Guide) in order to earn the PMP certification. Simply sitting in a chair and reading through the material will provide partial results. In order to master the material, you need to create study notes.
The type of study notes you create will depend on your learning approach. Here are a few ideas to get you started in creating study notes from books you read:
- Formulas. Write down important formulas and define the terms.
- Look for BOLD WORDS. If the author uses a phrase in BOLD over and over again, that is probably a hint
- Draw diagrams between concepts. I learned this concept from Scott H Young who famously completed the MIT Computer Science program in 12 months using his advanced study strategies.
- Note concepts you find challenging for further review. When you are learning a new subject, it is natural to come across challenging concepts in your reading. You may not understand the new idea right away. By making notes of these ideas for further review, you can look up the ideas in other books and consult experts to deepen your understanding.
16) Read Every Day
Many people set goals to read more. How do you get there? You simply need to develop a lifetime reading habit. Hint – always carry a book with you! If you are not a natural reader, look for ways to add reading to your routines (e.g. before you leave home for the day or before going to sleep).
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