The Art of Skim-Reading: An English Major's Survival Skill
What is skim reading?
Skim-reading is a type of reading that allows you to focus only on the core ideas of a text. This technique can help you understand a text's main argument and supporting arguments at an accelerated pace.
Though some criticize skim-reading as simply lazy reading, skim-reading is actually a highly strategic skill that is often necessary to learn in professional or educational settings that require you to digest large volumes of text quickly. I would go as far as to categorize skim-reading as an important time management and information management skill.
For an English major, there are times where skim-reading enables you to work smarter, not harder. While you shouldn't expect to pull straight A's without fully reading texts, selectively picking which texts you fully read and which you skim can help you stay on top of your reading load. When in university, sometimes I wouldn't have time before a class lecture to read all of the assigned texts, and so I would skim-read beforehand and then fully read the most important texts after the lecture.
Fully reading texts is always ideal and the best way to learn, but unfortunately, even the most dedicated English major just can't realistically find the time to meander through texts at whatever pace they want—the workload is simply too heavy!
The art of skim-reading is rarely talked about—no professors or teachers will ever tell you to pass on reading the entire text. And no professors will explain how to learn this skill, either. In fact, my English teachers all throughout school told me it's always better to go a mile deep and an inch wide rather than an inch deep and a mile wide. In other words, it's better to understand the depth of something rather than the surface. And while I would generally agree, in a pinch, skim-reading can make the difference between floundering in a class discussion and holding your own. Further, skim-reading is a great warm up exercise before fully delving into a text, because it can help you direct your reading. So go on, skim read! Sometimes it's okay to be a surface dweller, to be a leaf floating on top of water or a bug skimming the surface who understands the pond as a whole, rather than a minnow immersed in the pond but who doesn't see past itself.
WARNING! Texts you plan on writing essays about, or that you suspect you will be heavily tested on, I highly suggest you read fully, ALWAYS.
What isn't skim reading?
Skim-reading isn't casting your eyes over a text without focus or strategy. Skim-reading is not half-assedly flipping through pages and looking at words without paying attention. Skim-reading requires deliberate focus and intention.
Skim reading is also not speed reading! Speed reading is an entirely different skill that usually takes longer to learn and perfect.
Can you skim-read any text?
Skim-reading is not an effective technique for every type of text. Short stories, poems, novels, and other creative works are not ideal for skim-reading because they don't always follow a predetermined structure. These type of texts require a deep, thorough read in order for the content to be understood.
Don't get me wrong, you can infer a lot of information from the structure of a creative text, especially poems, but you won't be able to determine the main ideas and the CONTENT of the creative text from the structure alone.
For this same reason, essays, reports, historical documents, and textbooks are IDEAL for skim-reading because they often follow an organized and predictable structure for communicating information.
How to skim-read:
First, you must understand the structure of the text you are reading in order to skim-read effectively. Whether you are reading an essay or a textbook, there are six parts of a text that you should intentionally look at in order to understand the core ideas of the text:
First line of each body paragraph
Last line of each body paragraph
Key words / Repeating words / Bolded words
Conclusion / Outro paragraph
The title will communicate an abundance of information for non-fiction texts. A good title will directly impart what the text is about, and so it's important to take note of.
Always read the entire introductory paragraph or paragraphs of an essay or textbook. These first sentences will impart what ideas or topics the text will explore, and the last few lines of the introduction should outline the thesis—which tells you exactly what the essay will be exploring or arguing.
Paragraph: First Sentences
The first line of each body paragraph (no matter how many of them there are) in a strong and concisely written essay or textbook will tell you exactly what the paragraph will be about, just as the introduction paragraph tells you what the essay will be about as a whole.
Therefore, the first sentence should tell you a piece of information about the thesis. Often this will be an argument in support of the thesis or against the thesis. Alternatively, it may explore an idea to deepen the reader's understanding of the thesis. Additionally, the body paragraphs may provide information specifically to contextualize the thesis.
Paragraph: Last Sentences
The last line of each body paragraph usually sums up the point of the paragraph and does two jobs—first, it relates the paragraph back to the thesis, and second, it leads into the next paragraph, thus helping the reader understand the paragraphs in relation to each other.
Key words / Repeating words / Bolded words
Always take note of repeated phrases or words in a text! Repetition of an idea means that it is important, and that you should pay attention to it. In an essay, important central ideas will usually be repeated, and in a textbook, important ideas will usually be bolded. Take note of these words and phrases, and let them guide your reading of a text.
The conclusion paragraph, like the introduction paragraph, is a hotbed of information! The conclusion of a well-structured text summarizes everything about the text, thus reinforcing it as a whole. Good conclusions will restate the thesis, restate the content of the body paragraphs, link it to any key terms, and end off by directing the reader about how to digest the information as a whole.
There you have it! Now go forth and skim-read!