Quickly reading technical articles and books

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There is so much information out there pertaining to our jobs, a lot comes in the form of articles and books. How do you get through all this information fast without loosing comprehension?

Well this is my technique. I have used this since my university days, and although it works for me, it isn’t perfect for everyone. It is a mixture of speed reading and mind mapping. I use this for both technical articles such as research papers as well as chapters from technical books.

  1. Quickly skim the paper or chapter noting down only the subheadings.
  2. Use these subheadings as the main section of a mind map branching out from a central topic. This central topic could be paper or chapter title.
  3. Look at and normally read the captions for any diagrams and charts (not source code though)
  4. Speed read the article or chapter, don’t stop for words or phrases you don’t quite understand.
  5. Speed read the article again, this time writing out any key points under their relevant topics on the mind map.
  6. Go have a cup of coffee.
  7. Look over your mind map. You will naturally be drawn to topic areas that interest you the most. If needed you could re-read these sections again.

There are several ideas behind this technique.

  • Getting your brain to absorb only information that interests it. Most text from books and published papers are written in such a way that allows the reader to easily flow between the related subject matter within it.
  • You look at images and charts before starting to read so as to give yourself a heads up for when you reach that section of the text.
  • Not stopping for difficult phrases or words helps keep the rhythm up, you will be covering these words again at the second pass. Second time around you will have more of an idea of the context of the piece.
  • The detail of the mind map automatically comes out from the subject matter that interests you. We all have a tendency to remember information that is of interest to us. This information can also give extra pointers for more research down different paths.

So the speed reading gets you through the text fast and the mind map emphasizes the important bits.

The main difficulty with speed reading I find is keeping it up. Initially it is so easy to drop back into normal ‘speaking in your head’ reading. Keep practicing, it will get easier.

What about code?

The only way I find to understand the code aspect of these articles is to just type it in and step through using the debugger. I find learning easier if I can do some practical work to go along with the theory. Does anybody else have any tips?


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