Please share your reading habits/techniques/strategies

post by Torello · 2013-09-13T13:41:53.584Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 26 comments

I'm looking to build up a “tool-box” of strategies/techniques/habits for reading non-fiction effectively and efficiently.  I'm looking for methods to help me retain concepts, locate main ideas, make connections, etc.

If anyone has posted about this topic previously, please link to the post. 

Please point to relevant resources that have worked for you; additionally please describe skills/systems that you've developed personally. 

An example of a useful comment I got posting in an open thread, from Jayson_Virissimo

 “As I read textbooks, I summarize the most important concepts (along with doing the exercises, if there are any) and write them in a notebook and then later (less than a week) enter the notes into Anki as cloze-delete flashcards. I don't have an objective measure of retention, but I believe that it has vastly improved relative to when I would simply read the book.” 

Here is an example of an existing resource that I found useful:


Here are some questions/prompts that may spur your thinking:

Describe the setting where you read.

Do you schedule reading time?  How?   

How do you decide what to read next?

Do you write notes by hand, on a computer?

Do you wear noise-canceling headphones? 

Do you skim texts?

Do you reread texts?

How often do you reread “foundational” texts, or texts that shifted your paradigm? 

How often do you decide not to finish a book?



I may do a series of posts on this in discussion, and if other users find it interesting/useful I may eventually make it into a post for the main page.   


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-09-13T21:46:19.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is all descriptive of my current thoughts on the matter, not prescriptive - I don't assign high confidence to my effectiveness in this area except when it comes to the scientific paper part. When it comes to that I am almost sure my way is both distinct from and superior to what most people at my scholastic stage do.

The "how to read" guide is complementary to the "how to write" guide that your author read.

There's lots of ways to convey information. Reading strategies arise when the author and the reader have a certain mutual understanding concerning how the information is to be presented. The trick is to figure out the conventions of your genre. Humanities books are different from Science books, Science books are very different from scientific abstracts. I think I went somewhat backwards in that I earnestly read scientific abstracts on the internet before I really attempted the reading of scientific textbooks with adult earnestness. Humanities textbooks didn't come much later, with college. I was initially frustrated with the lack of brevity with which humanities were written - reading them in the science reading style doesn't work and will result in much information loss. I think that a humanities-style reading in the Sciences would probably result in excessive time usage, confusion, and memory overload. I believe that this is not because humanities and sciences are inherently different, but because the two genres have different conventions.

Your reading style will also be shaped by your goals in reading (and the goals of the majority of readers reading shape the reading conventions). For non-fiction, the primary distinction is whether you are reading to fill in known unknowns (looking for an answer to a question) or unknown unknowns (increasing general knowledge in an area without having any questions).

For science textbooks if the material is review (approximately, stuff that we've known about since before 1920) I just read it like a novel and skip the parts I already know. My mind will form the models of how things work on the fly as i read, and everything is assumed to be true unless uncertainly is stated. It helps to make little marks concerning where you are confused or perceive a gap, as well as noting the information you intend to commit to memory (if any).

Science textbooks for which the material is novel (stuff that's still uncertain) the *citations jump out of the page for me. The textbook will typically provide an extremely condensed review of the material in question. My mind will group concepts in terms of each experiment. Each experiment must be evaluated critically as evidence (What do the experimenters think they demonstrated, what do I think it means, etc) . This sort of textbook is a tool for eating tons of abstracts at once - the citations are the roadmaps which divide one concept from another.

For scientific papers, I begin by thoroughly read every word of the abstract. Do I know what all the words mean? Do I understand what's going on? If not, read the introduction - otherwise skim it or skip it altogether and go directly to methods. Form opinions about the validity / implications of the data. Briefly check whether my conclusions match those of the authors. If they match, I'm done. If they don't match, read the rest of the paper and figure out the reason for the difference of opinion.

My best strategy with Humanities textbooks thus far has been to read the section I'm interested in front to back, like a novel.

Do you write notes by hand, on a computer?

I don't think it matters. What does matter is whether you write the notes in the book, or outside of it. Notes in the book will call your attention to the area when you are reading that page. Notes outside of the book (and don't keep too many of these, or your notes will be a book) will direct you to areas in the book. The former is kind of like episodic memory - it will trigger when you go there. The latter is like working memory - limited in space but useful for managing multiple things at once.

Accordingly, I only use notes if I want to remind myself of something. The actual organization of the material itself happens non-verbally. If I need to commit a complex set of concepts to memory (usually in preperation for a test) I'll make a diagram or a drawing.

Do you wear noise-canceling headphones?

Earplugs are cheaper. I typically only block out other stimuli if I'm under time pressure or if the material is really boring and my attention keeps running away. But I think boredom is "System 1" way of telling "System 2" that you are wasting your time so there is no good reason to read something boring unless you've been assigned it for a class (in which case, if you aren't one of the lucky multitudes who possess the gift of extrinsic motivation , tell system 1 to shut up).

I do find that reducing background noise can somewhat reduce overall tension and stress.

How often do you decide not to finish a book?

I only ever finish novel-style books. These can be non-fiction or science, but they'll be specifically designed for the purpose of keeping the reader hooked. For the other type, you can't really speak of finishing something that isn't linearly read.

Edit: As a final note - for me (and I suspect for most people) the limited resource is not time, but willpower. Tedium is the #1 source of willpower leakage, with frustration coming in at #2. The above advice is what I do - if I were to attempt to give advice that universally applies to everyone who is similar enough to me that they read Lesswrong, I'd say "read in the manner which is most enjoyable". It doesn't matter if you lose time doing so. Following your interest levels will automatically optimize for information density and relevance (assuming you are reading for self-directed reasons).

comment by DavidAgain · 2013-09-13T15:37:57.674Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At university, I had to write an essay (2 thousands words or so) every week or two on the subject we were currently studying. Then I had to talk about them for an hour or so with someone far better informed on the topic than me. I retained far, far more about subjects by doing this than I did about subjects which I just read about or went to lectures on: even though a lot of time was used in apparently less optimal ways (skimming for things to quote, writing the actual essays to be elegant as well as make the relevant arguments etc.)

As a caveat to this, I should say that the subject was often very subjective (I wasn't embedding fundamental complex truths, more taking sides on debates: the most rigorous it got was analytic philosophy and science-being-talked-about-by-a-humanities-student), and that I really enjoy those sort of arguments, so I might be predisposed towards them.

For me, this way of learning things is a bit like realising that I can be incredibly creative (in the sense of making up arguments and crystallising my thoughts) in a test situation: I know it works, but I find it very difficult to force myself into the artificial situation of having to do it. If I need to in the future for some reason, I think I'd need to find a buddy or something to provide pre-commitment.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2013-09-13T17:05:54.690Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then I had to talk about them for an hour or so with someone far better informed on the topic than me. I retained far, far more about subjects by doing this than I did about subjects which I just read about or went to lectures on comes to mind.

Replies from: peter_hurford
comment by Peter Wildeford (peter_hurford) · 2013-09-13T20:48:53.712Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's the fixed link

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2013-09-13T21:40:02.222Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The link is not broken, LW is just on a really old Reddit codebase which doesn't auto-link HTTPS (like Reddit does now).

Replies from: peter_hurford
comment by Peter Wildeford (peter_hurford) · 2013-09-14T01:44:07.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, there's a link that is clickable, at least.

Notably, copying and pasting the link you provided doesn't work either because you need a space between "2" and "Sigma".

Replies from: somervta
comment by somervta · 2013-09-14T04:57:50.131Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And for 'comes to mind' to not be part of the link.

comment by moridinamael · 2013-09-13T14:48:18.303Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I am wearing my academic hat, my technique is to first gather an enormous, excessive amount of material, including every book, paper, file and website I can download or haul from a library and skim abstracts, tables of contents, and titles to get a map of the topic in my head. I may only really read one or two of these references in detail. I sometimes put high-value nuggets of information in Anki. One critical thing for me is that this process is highly active and I must be feeling energetic. Reading technical material is not a sedate, passive experience for me, and if I am bored, my interest and thus my retention drop to zero. Thus, it is essential that I be sufficiently curious about the topic at hand that my curiosity powers me through the process. For me this is a critical part of my process.

comment by wattsd · 2013-09-13T17:14:49.402Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've recently made an effort to start getting more out of the reading that I do, I think one of the simplest things to do is to close the book every few minutes and summarize what you've just read. Writing down those summaries is even more effective. I'm sure people who post reviews and summaries (see some of the recent ones posted here for example) have a far better understanding of the material than if they just read it.

One book that might be helpful is "How To Read A Book" by Mortimer Adler. It talks about different stages of reading, questions to ask yourself, and other strategies. If you don't want to buy the book (it's fairly cheap), there are numerous summaries online. If you buy it though, you get a free book to practice on. Here is an excerpt on reading multiple books on a given topic:

I. Surveying the Field Preparatory to Syntopical Reading

  1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
  2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject. Note: These two steps are not, strictly speaking, chronologically distinct; that is, the two steps have an effect on each other, with the second, in particular, serving to modify the first.

II. Syntopical Reading of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage I

  1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages.
  2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
  3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
  4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.
  5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated. Note: Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained throughout. One way to insure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual quotation from his text.

Another book I'm looking into (but haven't yet read) is Cognitive Productivity. Also, if you are open to it, you might consider reading a book on studying the Bible. It's really a series of connected books with lots of self reference and people have been studying it for a long time, so there is a lot on the topic. It's called Hermeneutics, and while I used the Bible as an example (because of the wealth of material on its study) hermeneutics is used elsewhere (other religious traditions, law, philosophy, etc).

Replies from: wattsd, gjm
comment by gjm · 2013-09-13T19:31:21.380Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Books on studying the Bible tend to have assumptions built into them that aren't appropriate for people reading books they don't regard as The Sacred Word Of God. There will probably be some useful material in there, but I wouldn't expect a great density of it.

There are books on studying the Bible written by people who don't make those assumptions, but I think those books tend to be directed more specifically at theology students, which would reduce their general relevance in other ways. (There'll likely be more attention to issues specific to the Bible, or to particular bits of it -- dealing with the fact that it's usually read in translation from somewhat-uncertain sources, addressing the original context of societies very unlike our own, etc.)

It's entirely possible that there are some Bible-study-advice books out there that are general enough, and treat the Bible enough like an "ordinary" book, that a good portion of their advice is more broadly applicable, and perhaps some of them give good advice. But I don't think just saying "look up some books about the Bible" is going to be helpful; the majority of Bible-study-advice books probably aren't so useful. Do you have a particular recommendation?

Replies from: wattsd
comment by wattsd · 2013-09-13T20:20:47.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is a good point, I've only just begun to look into it, so I don't have any general recommendations. It just seemed like as I was coming up with a reading list on reading, some books seemed to pop up in Amazon's "people also bought" section. I think part of it is because the guy who wrote "How to Read a Book" was heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas. I also looked up hermeneutics afterwards and it seemed appropriate for what I was trying to do. One key takeaway seems to be looking at reading as work...

One book that I was looking at was "Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics" by Traina, as the table of contents looked interesting (survey of books as wholes, survey of parts as wholes, selecting questions and formulating premises, drawing inferences, evaluating and appropriating, correlation,...). Haven't got to it yet though.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-09-13T14:00:46.847Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't own a smartphone, which may seem like a disadvantage in a lot of contexts (and is significantly motivated by frugality,) but since I am easily distracted, it helps me read through a book without being distracted by other activities.

I mostly read while I'm out of my home, while I'm waiting or on public transit, or other contexts where I have nothing else interesting vying for my attention. Thus, I get productivity out of time that would otherwise being going right down the sinkhole.

Replies from: Torello
comment by Torello · 2013-09-13T14:08:35.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I definitely relate to your first comment. I purposely bought an older Kindle so that I wouldn't use the device for anything but reading.

I find it really difficult to concentrate on a book in a short time span, like a fifteen minute bus ride, especially if I don't have a companion to tell me when to get off the bus. I like the idea of using otherwise underutilized time, but for me it's difficult in practice.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz, Risto_Saarelma, hyporational
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-09-13T17:47:52.160Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like adding a timer/alarm clock to readers would be a good idea.

Replies from: Torello, hyporational
comment by Torello · 2013-09-13T18:24:30.530Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You mean so I won't need to worry about missing my stop?

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-09-13T18:28:09.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by hyporational · 2013-09-15T09:20:30.790Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think every cell phone in existence has a timed alarm. That's what I use when commuting.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2013-09-14T19:05:53.541Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this really a problem with something like a work commute which you take every day and which is the same every time? I've read smartphone books on the bus to school or work for something like 8 years now, and being fully aware of where to get off has never been a problem after I've ridden the route a few times and become familiar with it.

comment by hyporational · 2013-09-15T09:17:56.705Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe you should use a timer with an alarm to get of the bus in time?

comment by yli · 2013-09-15T01:16:13.774Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reading something for 6 hours spread across 6 days will result in more insight than reading it for 12 hours straight. The better sleep you get the stronger this effect is.* So: do things in parallel instead of serially if possible and take care of your sleep.

* These are just guesses based on my personal experience.

comment by sentientplatypus · 2013-09-13T23:47:12.678Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post of mine might be helpful to you.

comment by iDante · 2013-09-13T19:13:16.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How to Read a Book has a large section on reading nonfiction.

I read physics textbooks all the time, as well as some math. Right now I'm working through Group Theory and Physics. The best advice I have to give is to pick the right textbooks. I have it easy since I can just ask professors what books to read. I tend to read them very slowly (3-4 months for a good sized book) but I'm a busy person. I take notes by hand.

comment by MarkL · 2013-09-13T14:40:02.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Read the table of contents, read the index, read through the citations, read the preface/forward/intro, possibly read the concluding chapter. Then and only then do I dip into the book in a few targeted places, and then and only then do I (sometimes) read the entire book.

comment by hyporational · 2013-09-15T08:59:22.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The setting

I read at home, a small one room apartment. The most crucial thing about the setting for me is light. I have several bright lights that I have timed to turn on at about 4 am. I wake up to them, no need for stressful alarm clocks. I also try to keep things clean, because clutter is a major distraction.

Reading time

I wake up at 4 am, I eat and wash quickly, then study till I have to leave for work or university. I usually start by reviewing my anki cards. Studying in the morning is almost effortless for me, studying in the evening is a major pain. I have a tendency to feel depressed and fatigued after 4 pm.

Deciding what to read next

I use a program called ToDoList. I usually start a project based on what my university studies require, then divide it into subtopics(projects) and prioritize them (on a scale from 1-10) and estimate how much time each topic takes to learn and how much time I should use on them based on the priorities. The priorities are based on how much I think I will need the knowledge for my work.

I also gather a list of sources and usually start from the least effortful material e.g. lecture powerpoints and basic articles and then move to textbooks and more indepth articles if feel the need to do so. After the plan is ready, I can fully concentrate on studying the topics from most to least important. Knowing that I do things in the correct order takes out the stressful thoughts of not having the time to study everything.

The program allows me to do all this and also record how much time things take so I can adjust my estimates accordingly. Recording the time you actually work also helps to keep honest to yourself: for example the time you spend at the library isn't necessarily a good proxy for estimating how much you actually study.

I have no system for reading nonfiction that doesn't involve my profession, but plan to have one in the future.

Do you write notes by hand, on a computer?

Always on a computer. Typing is always faster than writing, and I have a tendency to lose physical notes. Also my penmanship sucks unless I go extra slow.

Organizing knowledge

For ankifying knowledge directly, I try to follow the 20 rules of formulating knowledge by the developer of supermemo, the guy who developed the algorithm also used in Anki. For heavily interconnected/conceptual knowledge I use Freeplane, a mindmapping software, before I try to ankify it.

Memory aids

Spaced repetition is indispensable for effective learning, I use Anki. I also use various mnemonic systems: mnemonic major, peg system, acronyms, acrostics etc.

Do you wear noise-canceling headphones?

Yes. They are very useful if I happen to study in public. For studying I usually listen to ambient electronic music or loops of pleasant noises. Acoustic and vocal music are very distracting for me, perhaps because of my musical background.

Do you skim texts?

I skim to filter out topics that I have already learned or are too complicated to be practically useful. Skimming is also useful if I search for a particular bit of info.

Do you reread texts?

I reread segments as I'm trying to process them, otherwise almost never. If I have to reread, I think I've done something wrong in the first place.

How often do you reread “foundational” texts, or texts that shifted your paradigm?

I don't reread full texts, unless I want to re-experience the pleasure of discovery or brilliant writing, and even that is very rare.

How often do you decide not to finish a book?

I usually don't read full texts, as there is significant overlap and unnecessary filler in them, so I'd say 90 % of the time. I probably finish about 20 % of the fiction I read.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2013-09-13T14:14:20.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I scrutinise the bookshelves of other people, and judge them ask them for the core thesis of books that are of interest. This lets me avoid books that aren't a good investment of my time.