You know someone’s out of ideas when he not only does another “Five tips for” post but barely even changes the title.
Nevertheless, reading well is the first step towards writing well. If you can read fast – and I’m not talking about skimming pages, but actually absorbing and retaining what’s relevant – you can acquire a lot more knowledge and experience and ideas in a far shorter time. And when writing, that level of acquisition often separates the good from the truly meaningful. The same side of two coins. Not to mention it’s a handy skill when dealing with large volumes of text and larger volumes of deadline.
1. Break it apart. How do you shell an egg? One little piece at a time. The same for reading, which can often be an onerous and repetitive task. Set yourself checkpoints throughout the text (like the end of a paragraph or a page), and make sure you take short breaks when you reach them. It sounds counter-intuitive, but these “refreshers” keep your stamina up and prevent you from flatlining halfway through the marathon that is Civil Litigation Vol. XXVII.
The only exception to this rule is those people who can shell an egg in just a single piece, to whom I say: since you already have superhuman powers of concentration and dexterity there’s probably nothing you can gain from this blog and you should be off curing Ebola or something.
2. Ask yourself questions. What half-boiled joke did I make in the first sentence of this post? How many times have I used egg metaphors so far? By asking yourself questions, you:
- Start thinking about what the material you’re reading could be useful for;
- Force your mind to retain the salient points of your reading; and
- Identify what you haven’t actually retained, either through forgetfulness or lack of attention.
Even when reading fiction for fun, I sometimes ask myself questions about the plot so far, or the characters’ histories, or even what I might’ve written differently. Not only does this improve and focus your retention of the important things, it makes reading into a game. And since you retain more from each pass of the text, you cut down on repeat-reading when studying for exams, passing the Bar, preparing for your next literary salon, etc.
3. Topic sentences. You remember how in school, your teachers said that the first sentence of each paragraph should capture its essence? You can now use that piece of mind-scarring structural insight to your advantage. When searching for specific information (say for an essay or article), check the first sentence of each paragraph in your reference material. Sound useful? Read further. No idea what it means? NEXT.
Of course, this approach can sometimes overlook “hidden gems” in the barren wasteland of your reading material, and should not be applied to any unstructured work like novels, long-form journalism, and this blog.
4. Try to care. Why are books like Twilight and The Hunger Games so popular? Because they’re easy to read. They tell a clear story, with easily-imaginable characters, in situations that excite or terrify or provoke us into thought and feeling. If you’re wading through constitutional documents or financial T&Cs, you are unlikely to be excited or terrified into anything other than drooling on the table.
So make it interesting. Wonder what that piece of litigation might mean to a family or a group of friends. Imagine how that poison-pill clause might play out in a hostile takeover replete with witty one-liners and pineapples. When the reading matters to you, its duration won’t.
5. Do all these things often. Reading is like a riding a bicycle. You may never forget once you learn, but you need to practice to build up your speed. If you hit bumps in the road, don’t just bulldoze through them – use them to build up speed, or take a new direction. And when your tires are flat and your gears in desperate need of repair, just remember this: nothing hurts more than a badly-planned metaphor.
In brief: Piece by little piece, make it interesting, make it matter.