Before we read something we often skim or preread it for several seconds. What happens during these seconds is not always clear. Here I will try to demystify this process.
Probably the first thing we do instinctively is noticing certain words. How do we know what to look for? Apparently not all words are equal. We are looking for rare words that appear often in a particular article. At least, this was Google’s original algorithm. We read the title and try to imagine which words will describe it. When we skim the article itself we miss the common words like prepositions, we should also skim the words that are commonly associated with the title. Then we are statistically likely to notice words that appear several times and which we did not skip. It’s like there is some animal counter in our hunter brain which counts its pray. This is intuitive and effortless. If the counter gets large we will notice a word. If a word is rare or monstrous, we will probably notice it even if it appears only once.
Reimagining the contents
Once we read the title our imagination starts to work. We try to understand what the article is about. As we collect keywords, the imagination should either stop or go into hyperdrive. Some articles are so boring that even after a short skimming we lose all interest. There are some authors who write incredible titles and most useless articles. I always open their articles because of the titles and close them as soon as I see their names.
Suppose the article is interesting. My imagination goes into hyperdrive. How could they achieve what the article talks about? What arguments or statistics reinforce the main claim? In which ways this information can help me? How can I use the new keywords to find further articles about the subjects that interest me?
At the same time, we build some hypothesis about the article. It could be wrong, but it is something we can work with. We kind of understand what the article is about but not enough to understand it. This is like listening to a foreign language very close to our own, or an accent of our own language we barely understand. Most English speakers know what I am talking about. In my own experience, this happened when I met Welshmen speaking English.
We all have some sort of precognition. When we start reading an article we kind of know what we expect to see within. One of the mistakes is simply saying “yes, this is exactly what I meant”. What you really should be looking for is innovation: what new ideas are presented in the article?
Priorities matter. Most people value the same things, simply they value them in a different order. Almost every war in history started this way. I will give you an example. Two friends and members the same large family want to rule England, they disagree who has a better claim, so Wilhelm conquers the island and establishes a dynasty to rule it for the next thousand years. Both claims are valid and the priorities are reinforced by sword and fire.
The author may claim the same things that we claim, simply in a different order, with modifications or special emphasis or formulation. These are the things we can learn from, the things we can address in our own thoughts and publications.
Do not be a blank list
As long as we have ideas we can build upon them, modify them and innovate. If we come to any text as a blank list, it is not really clear how we can treat it and what we can remember from it. Any author with good rhetorics aims at listeners who are not sure what they want and tries to enlist them. This is a fair game.
Do not fall prey to rhetorics. Come prepared. Argue with the author. Try to find weaknesses in his arguments. The most convincing authors are usually wrong. The people who tend to be right, also tend to be boring. We are not very good salesmen. Statistics and logic can be boring, especially when they are used correctly.
Nobody can argue with personal experience
This article is not really is based on scientific facts. Science supports some of my claims but is inconclusive with respect to other claims. I simply rely on decades of personal experience and on Anna’s descriptions from teaching tens of thousands of students. This is our experience. You cannot argue with it. It is yet another perspective you can use when you approach a text. You can try combining them with experiences of great teachers, for example, since we are talking about speedreading, Tony Buzan comes to mind. Eventually, each of us builds his own personal experience. Others can feel differently, can describe some different experiences, but cannot really argue with the experience of another person.
Before we read something, we can try to imagine the real people behind the books and their experiences. This will make our reading less abstract. After all, reading is simply another way for people to communicate with each other.