How to Skim Read Effectively (And If You Even Should)

I’ll bet you’ve come across some pretty horrible skimming strategies, haven’t you? 

I mean, think about how ridiculous this advice is:

“Read the first sentence in each paragraph.”

Huh? 

People who give such inane skimming tips don’t seem to understand what a paragraph is or how different kinds of writers use them. 

Hang tough, my friend.

On this page, you’ll finally get some straight talk on how to skim a book. And that’s assuming you actually should. 

Because the fact of the matter is this:

If skimming isn’t the right tool for the outcome you’re seeking, you’re better off doing something else. 

And the “tough love” fact of the matter is this:

We all need to be skeptical of the bizarre “techniques” people suggest around reading.

By the same token, you also want to remain flexible and give new things a try.

This means that balance is the key. Just make sure you’re well-versed in the reading techniques you’re using and one thing more:

Always be radically honest about the role of the techniques you’re using in creating complete comprehension of your reading materials.

Otherwise, why read at all?

What Is Skim Reading?

As I discussed in my skimming vs. scanning post, skimming literally refers to working with the surfaces of things. 

This fact means that skim reading is largely a tool for becoming basically familiar with a text. 

It also means that people telling you to skim read textbooks are practically criminals. 

If you need to be deeply familiar with material, skim reading is simply not the right tool. For a real “less is more” approach that does lead to deep familiarity, here’s how to memorize a textbook instead.

When I use skim reading, it is precisely for texts I only need a passing familiarity with.

Even better:

How we should skim should change depending on the context. 

For example, I’ll skim when I’m:

  • Reading a newspaper and deciding which stories I want to read
  • Deciding whether or not to buy a book
  • Looking for relevant hypertext in a blog post
  • Trying to find specific information in previously read material
a woman is reading a newspaper

Skimming is great when reading newspapers and similar material with which you only need passing familiarity.

But I will never skim material that holds importance for passing an exam. That’s just not part of how to study effectively

So if skimming is limited to a few specific contexts, you might be wondering how to use it well.

Let’s discuss. 

How to Skim Read Effectively in 4 Steps

If you’re a slow reader, you need to understand that skimming can wind up slowing you down in the end. 

That’s why you should first consider the depth of familiarity you want to achieve. 

If you want robust understanding while still reading faster, skimming is probably best saved for after you’ve read a book thoroughly. 

But if you’ve decided that you’re reading for basic familiarity, give these steps a try.

One: Choose Print Whenever Possible

Although there’s nothing wrong with digital reading, it’s not conducive to skimming.

For one thing, where is the “middle” of a book on an E-reader?

We know from a lot of memory science, that spatial awareness is key to remembering more. 

As Naomi Baron points out in Words Onscreen, digital is great, but prevents certain “stumble upon” possibilities enabled by print. For example, you can fan through hundreds of pages in a few seconds and see them in a completely different way. 

You can also feel the pages in your hand and use your fingers to hold different pages and compare and contrast certain details. 

She also points out how you can experience the benefits of handwritten annotation when working with print. 

And generally, print is better for what she calls “deep reading,” emotional involvement and rereading.

As you can see, I totally agree:

And if you’re wondering what scientists think, Gemma Fitzsimmons and her colleagues found that online reading encourages people to focus more on unimportant words. Dena Acklin and Megan Papesh found that speed reading apps didn’t help improve things whatsoever.

To be fair, a lot has to do with information display and how technologies of today work. So this might improve in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.

Plus, I think I’ve made some solid arguments against why having a memory implant is a really bad idea, even if it is almost certainly going to be possible.

Two: Be Prepared With Visualization Techniques

I met this morning with one of my private coaching clients and a student in the Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass

He showed me some of the material he needed to memorize from a legal textbook. 

I quickly scanned and memorized some case law, completely blowing him away with how quickly I could encode the material and recite it back to him.

It’s really just practice and knowing how to visualize clearly.

If you want to skim effectively and remember what you glance at, take care of developing this skill a.s.a.p. 

If you need help, register for this free course. Videos 2 and 3 cover effective visualization:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

Three: Manufacture Curiosity

It’s easy to breeze through the pages looking for the “point.”

The problem is…

You don’t know the book, and if you’re skimming, you’re very likely to miss the very point you’re trying to find.

This is why the notion that you should only read the first sentences of paragraphs is utter nonsense. 

Instead, I recommend you simply skim the pages as such with no special focus on this or that kind of sentence.

Instead, look for keywords and ideas that leap out at you. Then, make yourself curious about them. Be an explorer in your mind. 

You can do this by asking a set of simple to remember questions: 

  • How might this be important in the context of this book?
  • Why is the author including it?
  • When might this detail be useful to me? 
  • What does it connect to? 
  • Who is involved in the detail? 

Asking these questions can help you even when dealing with boring topics.

Once you’ve gotten yourself interested in certain points, follow up with these additional reading strategies.

Four: Test Yourself

So far you’ve favored print, prepped yourself to make visual associations and started using questions. 

visual associations with reading

The next step is to ensure that you can remember what you read.

One of the best ways to do this is to manually try to recall what you noticed while skim reading. 

Without the previous steps, you probably won’t remember much. But with them, you’ll have started the process that enables active recall.

Whether I’m reading fiction or non-fiction, skimming or reading in-depth, I make it a point to go back and try to recall what I was reading. 

Even without a Memory Palace in the mix, the process of asking your mind to recall information helps build new memories. 

And in a weird way, it’s possible to “skim” your memory, or at least scan it for details when you intentionally get into the habit of recalling information.

It also makes for great brain exercise.

How To Skim Read Effectively

So there you have it: 

The key is to use skimming in context. 

And if the purpose of your reading is education, put the short cuts aside.

Seriously.

There’s no free lunch. 

But there are far better techniques that will save you time and help you remember more of what you read. These are very important to know, especially when you’re learning something new.

More importantly, these strategies will help you understand what you’ve read, which is a natural memory aid. I’ve shared links to a bunch of them throughout this article.

So what do you say?

Are you ready to skim intelligently and leave the nonsense behind? 

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