Think About What You Want to Know
Before you start reading anything, ask yourself why you’re reading it. Are you reading with a purpose, or just for pleasure? What do you want to know after you’ve read it?
Once you know your purpose, you can examine the resource to see whether it’s going to help you.
For example, with a book, an easy way of doing this is to look at the introduction and the chapter headings. The introduction should let you know who the book is intended for, and what it covers. Chapter headings will give you an overall view of the structure of the subject.
Ask yourself whether the resource meets your needs, and try to work out if it will give you the right amount of knowledge. If you think that the resource isn’t ideal, don’t waste time reading it.
Remember that this also applies to content that you subscribe to, such as journals or magazines, and web-based RSS and social media news feeds – don’t be afraid to prune these resources if you are not getting value from some publishers.
Know How Deeply to Study the Material
Where you only need the shallowest knowledge of a subject, you can skim material. Here you read only chapter headings, introductions, and summaries.
If you need a moderate level of information on a subject, then you can scan the text. This is when you read the chapter introductions and summaries in detail. You can then speed read the contents of the chapters, picking out and understanding key words and concepts. (When looking at material in this way, it’s often worth paying attention to diagrams and graphs.)
Only when you need full knowledge of a subject is it worth studying the text in detail. Here it’s best to skim the material first to get an overview of the subject. This gives you an understanding of its structure, into which you can then fit the detail gained from a full reading of the material. (SQ3R is a good technique for getting a deep understanding of a text.)
When you’re reading a document or book in detail, it helps if you practice “active reading” by highlighting and underlining key information, and taking notes (member-only article) as you progress. (Mind Maps are great for this). This emphasizes information in your mind, and helps you to review important points later.
Doing this also helps you keep your mind focused on the material, and stops you thinking about other things.
If you’re worried about damaging a book by marking it up, ask yourself how much your investment of time is worth. If the book is inexpensive, or if the benefit that you get from the book substantially exceeds its value, then don’t worry too much about marking it. (Of course, only do this if it belongs to you!)
Know How to Study Different Types of Material
Different types of documents hold information in different places and in different ways, and they have different depths and breadths of coverage.
By understanding the layout of the material you’re reading, you can extract the information you want efficiently.
Magazines and Newspapers
These tend to give a fragmented coverage of an area. They will typically only concentrate on the most interesting and glamorous parts of a topic – this helps them boost circulation! As such, they will often ignore less interesting information that may be essential to a full understanding of a subject, and they may include low value content to “pad out” advertising.
The most effective way of getting information from magazines is to scan the contents tables or indexes and turn directly to interesting articles. If you find an article useful, then cut it out and file it in a folder specifically covering that sort of information. In this way you will build up sets of related articles that may begin to explain the subject.
Newspapers tend to be arranged in sections. If you read a paper often, you can quickly learn which sections are useful, and which ones you can skip altogether.
You can apply the same strategies to reading online versions of newspapers and magazines. However, you need to make sure that you don’t get distracted by links to other, non-relevant material..