From speedreading to speedwriting

The most common question that I get about speedreading: how do I manage the information I just read. There is a simple and effective answer: start writing. The actual writing is important, and the details are technical.

Speedreading and speedwriting

Quite often we read to write. This is especially true for authors, bloggers, and journalists. The process is very simple:

  1. When we read, usually between articles and sessions, we make entries to some diary.
  2. Once we collected enough diary entries, we generate a title pitch using the diary entries.
  3. We review the entries and read more to fill in the holes in understanding.
  4. Then we write an article in a private or a public blog. The writing is the most complex part of the process, yet we all learned to write essays at school.
  5. We review the article again, editing it, adding thumbnail image, and metadata.

What is a viable alternative?

Consider the alternatives to understand why this procedure is better:

  1. Forget the subject unless we meet it again spontaneously. This is the default behavior of 90% of human beings. Pretty pathetic, yet often good enough. If something is important, we are likely to meet it many times.
  2. Select a small subset of details that need to be remembered: factors, names, dates. Create some spaced repetition plan and review the details. This is the default behavior of memory masters. Guarantees long-term retention but at a great cost.
  3. Build a project using the data acquired. This is the way of scientists and entrepreneurs. What can be used in the project will be remembered. What cannot be used will be forgotten, but then it might be useless. The project may include software or presentation or something different and creative.
  4. Daydream about the subject. This is the way of artists and philosophers. Quite effective to remember cool and useless information, including all the juicy details. In this way, we also may generate cool creative associations. Usually, this works with subjects that fascinate us.

I argue that speedreading followed by speedwriting can upgrade each of these approaches.

Speed considerations

While I occasionally speedread 400 articles per day, speedwriting is usually limited to 10000 words or 6 full articles per day. Each of these articles uses maybe around 8 resources. If you cannot write 20 pages of text per day, take my speedwriting course. Success is almost guaranteed.

Proper speedreading itself [the way I practice it] is somewhat different from our default approach:

  1. (10%) Preread (skim or scan, 20000 wpm) and evaluate the text.
  2. (40%) Read the text (4000 wpm) and retain it
  3. (40%) Reflect about the text and what it means for us, reviewing the memory structures in the process.
  4. (10%) Make a diary entry

I read pretty fast. You will probably read slower and the numbers will be different. Now, most people will preread and read, but then not know how to reflect about the text and make diary entries. Reflection is a complex process that we cover in several courses, including

  1. anchoring and defusing,
  2. analysis and creativity,
  3. questioning and marker creation.

Do not doubt yourself

90% of us 90% of the time cannot create good texts. The basic idea is not to be the next Pulitzer prize winner. We simply organize our thoughts by writing. While we do that, we review the materials several times. We are actually forced to review them, since writing a 1500 words articles (like I do in this blog) is hard. After 600 words we are already tired, unless we can use additional resources.


So you will review your materials so many times, actively and passively, that you are very likely to remember them. And if not, you will be able to find them via your full article.

Do not try to dictate and do not worry about grammar. Catherine the Great was one of the most effective rulers. Yet there is a true story about her.

Not a native speaker of Russian, Catherine misspelled eщё ([jɪɕˈɕo] ‘more’), written with three letters, as истчо ([ɪstˈtɕo]), consisting of five letters, and that allegedly gave rise to a popular Russian joke: how can five mistakes occur in a word of three letters? (The letter ё was not widely accepted until the 1940s).

The system works

I am sorry to say, that unless I use what I read I forget it. Sometimes I use it in private communication, sending anecdotes to friends and then discussing with them. Or in this blog. Occasionally answering my students.

I actually “know” the materials of my day job or my PhD not as good as the stuff I write about. Using something that we learn, allows for some non-verbal hands-on knowledge. Writing is very verbal, and often detail-oriented. Talking confidently or writing about something does not mean I know how to apply it practically.

So basically we want a combined approach for maximal coverage.

Combine everything

OK, so let us combine all the methods:

  1. Use speedwriting to reflect, analyze, and maintain the logic of what we read.
  2. Implement spaced repetition for specific data, like names, terms, dates, statistics.
  3. If what you read is cool, do daydream about it. Not just about a specific article, but about whole subjects.
  4. If what you read can be tested or implemented, consider using it practically. Since this step can be expensive, maybe a discussion or a mental experiment will suffice.
  5. Some of the stuff we read will be forgotten. This is OK. If the stuff is important, we will see it again…

This is a very useful and practical approach.

Long discussion short practice

For speedwriting we usually want long discussions, like 1500 or 2500 words. For practical aspects that can be implemented, 800 words are good enough. This article is practical, so I will stop here.

Do not just read, but use what you read…


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