Read Like an Engineer: 9 Tips for Reading Technical Books Fast
Engineers read a lot. Whether it's technical books, case studies, white papers, or manuals, reading is part and parcel of the job. Just as reading great books can help to further a person's career, so will reading faster and more efficiently make an engineer better at their job.
Here are nine fast reading techniques and tips that will help you to get through those technical books in no time while retaining a high level of comprehension.
1. Schedule your reading time
In our modern age of distraction, people often don't treat reading as an important part of their day — it's something that will be done if there's time or something that is all too often crammed into spare time. This attitude towards reading means that people are often rushing, and feeling distracted, the moment they open their book.
It's important to set aside a proper amount of time for reading, including time for notetaking, and rereading of important points. Half an hour can be set aside for approximately fifteen pages of reading, depending on the technicality of the text — given that the average reading speed for an individual is 250 words per minute or about a page of text in most technical books.
2. Schedule notetaking time
Notetaking is incredibly important for the comprehension of technical texts. Just by writing out the concepts, you are reading, and you are also testing your own comprehension of these concepts.
As a study by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, published in Psychological Science suggests, handwriting notes down on a notepad is likely better for memory retention than typing notes into your computer.
3. If you have a choice, read a physical copy
Your paper brain and ebook brain are not the same. As several studies have shown, online reading habits have led to many people losing practice when it comes to bi-literate reading — the act of deep absorption in texts or technical books that leads to higher comprehension.
When we read online, we tend to shift towards a style of "non-linear" reading where we skim over a text and look mainly to read around keywords. While it can be important to be selective about what we read (see point 6), research shows that our brains often subconsciously switch to this less focused style of reading when we read from a screen, whether we want it to or not.
A PRI neuroscientific research paper, for example, revealed that human beings use different parts of their brains when they are reading off of a piece of paper or from a screen. A controlled study carried out in Norway, meanwhile, saw several people read a short story either on a Kindle or in paperback.
The ones that read on paper were shown to be more likely to remember the plot points in the correct order. While this study was carried out using fiction rather than technical books, the main takeaway likely carries over.
4. Find or create a quiet space
Reading technical books or texts with very technical language can be a grueling task at times. Thankfully, there are many small things you can do to increase concentration. These include drinking enough water, breathing deeply, and getting rid of distractions.
Perhaps the most important of all is finding a quiet space, distraction-free space where you know you most likely won't be called on for the time you've set aside to read. Find a quiet room, and if possible, keep your smartphone turned off or out of sight.
5. Scan the text first
Reading technical books isn't like reading fiction, there's no need to worry about spoilers. What is important is getting a strong contextual understanding of what you are about to read. We recommend scanning over the entire text before reading it and paying special attention to subheadings, and anything that is highlighted.
It might be useful to read the introduction and conclusion to the text at the beginning. This way, you will have a framework for where the text is heading, and your reading will be filling in the dots.
6. Read selectively if you have to
Technical books can be so crammed with information and concepts that it can be counterintuitive to read every section if you don't actually have to.
We recommend setting out a few notes before you actually start reading to outline the goal you are aiming to achieve when reading your technical books. For example, if the text is broadly artificial intelligence and your focus is on machine learning, use the index of the book to focus on your comprehension goal, and read faster.
As Dartmouth College’s Academic Skills Center writes, reading a text fully, word for word, to gain an understanding of the key points is an outdated notion that has been drilled into us at school. Instead, we should learn to become better at selective reading.
7. Try not to subvocalize words
A habit that many of us pick up while reading, which is useful for our pronunciation skills but detrimental to our reading speed, is subvocalization. Subvocalization is when we silently pronounce each word in our minds and through mouth movements as we read.
Training our minds not to do this is a great way to learn to read faster, as subvocalization takes our focus away from understanding the author's main points in a text. This can especially be the case in technical books, as we subconsciously recall how to pronounce complex words.
Though the jury is still out on many speed-reading techniques — some argue that subvocalization is a key source of reading skill and shouldn't be eliminated completely — if you find yourself overly vocalizing words in your mind, a slight shift in focus can go a long way.
8. Write a summary when you've finished
Though this is really part of notetaking (point 2), we can't emphasize this point enough: your task isn't over when you've finished reading the last words of those technical books or texts. We recommend going over your initial notes and comparing what you acquired from the text to your original goals.
Did you acquire the knowledge or piece of information you were looking for? Did finishing your technical book or text leave you with any new questions?
By spending a few minutes taking notes once you've finished reading, you'll aid yourself with comprehension of the text and also have better memory recall. If you're a visual learner, drawing a mind map or some graphics of the key points might also help to better retain the information from the text.
9. Practice timed reading
Like almost any skill in life, fast reading takes practice. Reading technical books faster is a skill that can be acquired over time with conscious practice. While taking into account all of the points above, it is also useful to use a timer to record how many words per minute you read.
Keeping a log of how the speed of your reading changes over time is a great way to incentivize, or even gamify, reading. Of course, all of this must be balanced with comprehension. If you're getting through large amounts of text without comprehending any of it, it's obviously time to slow down.
We hope these tips for reading faster will help set you on your way to upping your game when it comes to reading those technical texts. In the meantime, why not test out your capabilities with this list of the best technical books to read for engineers? Happy reading!