How to be proficient at skim reading

How to be proficient at skim reading

The Chatty Mammoth is a team of practiced writers who appreciate the virtues of reading, but cannot fit enough of it in. We spend our hours searching for a diverse selection of cognitively satiating articles, located beyond the mainstream media; we then choose 3 standouts, and summarise them into daily 2 minute broadcasts.

We wrote this as a one-stop article designed to teach you how to master skim reading, whether you be a university student, hard-working professional or retiree. Like speed reading, skimming is an art form that you can practice to become proficient, even if it were only for 5 minutes a day.

Why do you want to skim read articles?

Although we’re not going to touch much on the benefits of skimming, it is worth you asking yourself why you want to skim read; yes, you’ll find that as you become more proficient at it, your reading speed will increase – but it is a steep learning curve, so you have to be sure you want to commit. Increased reading speed = less time spent on each page and, ideally, a stable level of comprehension.

Some people are skimmers by nature. They read everything fast, taking in a lot of information from each message they peruse over. If you find this to describe yourself, good for you! You’ll have an easier time picking up the concepts without too much effort.

When you first learn how to skim read, your reading speed will probably reflect on your natural ability more so than anything else; however, as you practice daily and refine your skills, your reading rate may surpass most of those around you regardless of their natural abilities to absorb materials quickly.

Everyone’s brain can skim read at breakneck speeds naturally. With this understanding, it only makes sense to want to become proficient at skimming to increase your reading rates throughout the day. Still, as with anything that requires practice, your skill level increases once you get better at it, and your accuracy becomes much higher than before.

When to skim read articles

Like speed reading, the best time to skim is when you have a large volume of information that needs to be consumed.  The more information digested in one sitting, the faster your brain will need to work, and the less time you’ll want to take per message.

What does one do while skimming?

So let’s say we’re at work and we have an email from our boss asking us for a presentation on a variety of topics happening over the next month.

At this point, it’s worth asking yourself:

  1. Am I familiar enough with the topic to be able to skim through it without slowing down too much?
  2. Do I know what I aim to achieve? What is the goal of this project?
  3. How long do I have to finish this?
  4. How am I going to get started on this as quickly as possible?

How to test your initial reading speed

  1. Go to or any speed reading site that tests your reading speed in words per minute
  2. Conduct multiple tests and average your time as accurately as possible, taking into consideration how long each section is.
  3. Try out different tests online to see where most people land on the scale; this will give you an idea of how fast everyone around you is reading so that you can adjust accordingly

Ask yourself why you need to read it quickly

Why do you need to read the article at a quick pace? Remember, trying to skim read everything – whilst maintaining a high level of comprehension – will be tiring. Only skim read when you need to. If you really want to know – to a high level – the content of the article, then it is best not to participate in scanning and instead use some slower reading strategies.

Think like the author

Authors can break down what they’re trying to say into a simple format so that the message is clear, concise and easy to understand

So when you skim through something, consider how you would write it out if you were an author. This should help you understand the relevance of each sentence of each paragraph. Don’t just scan randomly – use a methodical approach.

Break it down into chunks

Break everything down into smaller pieces so that you aren’t bogged down by too much information at any given point in time.

This is a biggie, especially when it comes to something like a lengthy article with many points or different perspectives. One way to help alleviate some of this stress is to stop reading every single sentence as it flows past and instead skim your way through the piece, picking out only the pieces that are relevant 1) for what you’re trying to accomplish and 2) for how much time you have to get it done. This is easier if the article is already divided in chunks – the author normally does half the work for you, marking out the introduction, headings, and conclusion.

Don’t necessarily read full sentences.

Whilst you want to take what you can from a sentence before moving forward, don’t feel you have to read the complete sentence; if there’s the main idea within what’s being said and it directly relates to your overall project at hand (in other words, it is relevant information), then make sure that you read every word of that sentence so that you can pick up on all of its nuances. Otherwise, just search for the next relevant part. This is particularly useful for students and those doing educational courses, where a plethora of content is provided.

Don’t skimp out on details that are of high value

While detail-oriented readers are always my favourite people to work with because they can form more interesting arguments than I ever could, in combination with their penchant for tracking down everything there is to know about a topic, the average person will be hard-pressed to notice any minor nuances within an article. Whilst you shouldn’t feel like you have to be so attention-specific, you do want your technique to capture the main ideas of the article, so you want to ensure you capture the material of high value.

During my writing career, I’ve had hundreds upon hundreds of people tell me that they didn’t have enough time to read everything I wrote and ask for an abridged version of everything without skimming through anything.

Know what you want to get from the articles.

Before you even start reading, make sure that you know what sort of information you’re looking for; if possible, try to set a goal as to how much time you want to spend reading this particular article in its entirety before seeing how far down the rabbit hole you’re willing to go.  As I said before, especially when it comes from work, the more time we can save while still getting done what we need to be done, the better

Know when it’s time to slow down and do more research

While many of the points above deal with knowing when it’s time to speed up when reading through something that you aren’t necessarily interested in fully absorbing, a key trick is to know when the sentences need more time devoted to them – especially if they hold some main ideas. Skimming and scanning are only useful if you think the article has a lot of junk.

Read the first sentence in each paragraph.

Nothing like going in with a bang, eh? Well, the first sentence is this bang.

So, you’ve broken down the whole article into smaller chunks and gone through each one picking out only certain words to try to understand what’s being said; as you go further and further along, you start getting a feel for how fast your brain processes information at first glance when it doesn’t really have much context (i.e. you haven’t already read anything about whatever this article is talking about).  As such, after a few minutes of that sort of quick thinking exercise, your head should be swimming with knowledge.  However, there will probably be times when the author takes an abrupt departure from what they were talking about earlier to digress for a bit or bring up a specific point.  This is where you run into your first problem: what the hell was he talking about? To try to keep in touch with the author thought progression, ensure you read the introductory sentence of each paragraph. The introductory sentence should be directly related to the material of the paragraph and can support your focus and comprehension.

Preread before you start skimming.

The easiest way to remedy a lack of comprehension is through prereading: read a few paragraphs at the most before you start skimming around.  This will bring as much of what has transpired in the article to the front of your mind so that everything makes sense as it’s being said (and, more importantly, after it’s been said). If you have time, this method – alongside the other techniques, can make a significant difference in your process.

Ask yourself questions throughout the reading

I’ve done this with friends who are just starting with speed reading and definitely recommend it for those who have built up a feel for what their brains can skim at first glance; aside from setting goals for how much you want to get out of something, try asking specific questions that might help you figure out what they’re trying to say here or there. This will allow you to prioritise your attention and thus boost your speed reading. This is also helpful if you have trouble understanding: ask the question aloud and then think about it while your mind continues moving through the text.

Repetition is an effective tool when learning anything, and it works quite well for this as well. So, after you have finished the key components of the article, try repeating these questions.

Skip examples and proofs.

I’m not going to pretend as I’ve actually used this one, but it’s one that my brother swears by, so… sure, why not.  All I’m saying here is be smart about what you’re working with: if there are a couple of sentences dealing specifically with proving whatever point they’re trying to make, then skip them (unless, of course, that’s what you want – in which case go for it).

Final Thoughts on Skimming

Alright, that should about cover the fundamentals when it comes to skimming.  Just remember even when reading things at a quick pace, there needs to be some structure and order to how much information you’re taking in: as such, don’t feel obligated to try and understand every word; there’s enough stuff to comprehend as it is while you’re just trying to understand how your brain processes things. Words can be a fantastic source of answers but, if not read closely enough, can rapidly decline into nonsense. Now go forth and read!

Do you have any questions? Send us an email, and we will try to answer them. Hopefully, we can help you decide what is worth speed reading.

We understand that being time-poor means you cannot prioritise reading. So, our team of writers filter through the web to find the most stimulating online writing from outlets you wouldn’t usually read, on topics you haven’t discussed before. We condense these articles into daily bite-sized packages, allowing you to read more, by reading less.