Preview before you start reading. Speed reading technique #2

Preview before you start reading. Speed reading technique #2

Summary Spend 2 to 5 minutes looking through the book, finding out what it’s about before you start reading. Just this one technique can save you hours of time and money (by identifying books you don’t have to read or buy).

“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

It’s amazing how many people decide to buy or read a book based simply on its title, cover or subject matter. They buy it without even opening it. Then once they’ve started reading, they somehow feel obliged (to whom?) to continue reading to the end.

You no longer need to waste time like that. Just because a book’s on your subject, it doesn’t mean it’s a good book. Previewing helps you recognise the difference between good and bad books before you’ve spent time reading them all the way through.

The purpose of previewing is to find out what the book is about and to enable you to decide:

  • in general what this book is about
  • whether or not to buy/borrow/read it
  • what you think you can get from it that’s useful to you (your purpose)
  • how long it’s worth spending on it (or whether it’s a book of reference that you’ll want to go back to several times)

HOW TO preview

  • open the book and flick backwards and forwards through it two or three times to get a feel for it, noticing the layout, size of the font, any graphs, pictures, illustrations, captions, etc
  • quickly read the cover blurb front and back (but be aware that this is written by the publishers to try to sell the book and it is not always accurate)
  • check the date of publication (this is crucial for subjects which go out of date very quickly, such as computing or quantum physics)
  • read the contents list, and look through the book at chapter titles and headings
  • look through the index for key terms and ideas which are relevant to you (notice how many entries there are for relevant terms)
  • search for something you know should be covered about this subject
  • evaluate the credibility of the author and the dependability of the information – and, if relevant, the people who recommended it to you
  • check the bibliography and references for credibility and for possible sources of further information
  • check for chapter summaries (a quick source of key information) – in particular, check the first and last chapters and the beginnings and ends of chapters
  • open the book at random and read a couple of paragraphs to judge the style of writing

As you preview, you can be …

  • thinking what you anticipate learning from this book. Why spend time on it? What do you want out of it?
  • deciding how easy it’s going to be to access the information you want
  • thinking how much you already know of what’s in the book
  • noticing what’s missing. What do you need that isn’t in this book?
  • deciding whether to buy/borrow/read the book, or not.

At any stage, if you discover you’ve got the wrong book for what you need, put it down and find another. If you decide to go ahead, you will already have gained a good overview of what the book’s about and what information it contains.

Previewing digitally and online The previewing procedure for digital books or online texts is basically the same as for hard copy material. Remember to check online reviews. As soon as you’ve identified key terms, use your search facility to find things more quickly, and you can use your scroll function to look quickly through text.

Purpose If you’ve decided to go ahead, then decide (as part of your previewing time)

  • What is your purpose? (>4) Why are you going to read this book? What information do you want from it? What will you do with the information you get?
  • How much time is it worth spending on this book?

Jan’s experience Jan regularly spends an hour or two in a bookshop just previewing 15 to 25 books – after which he might buy one or two. The only books he regrets buying are the ones he buys online without having previewed them.

Preview a study reading list

Sometimes books are prescribed (eg for a course of study), so you have no option about which ones to read. However, as a student, spend a couple of days before your course previewing all the books on your reading list. You’ll be amazed at how much you learn about your subject and about where to find information when you need it – and it’s an excellent way of getting an overview (>25) of a new subject.

Getting through the book pile!

The more books you preview, the easier it becomes to decide how useful or valuable they are to you. Most of us have got a pile of books we feel we need to get through. So why not start by previewing all the books or journals on your bookshelves (and bedside table)? It’s a great way to discover where to find the information you might need at a future date and to help you feel comfortable about all the material you’ve got to read. A lot of information will also be going into your non-conscious mind and long-term memory (see>29).

Thin slicing

The aim when you’re reading a book for factual information is to get as much information as possible by reading as few words as possible. (What Malcolm Gladwell calls ‘thin-slicing’ in his book ‘Blink’.) Previewing is an excellent start to this process.

How would you cut a cake in order to find out what it’s like?

Obviously you’d cut a thin slice vertically (hence thin-slicing).

But for many people, the way they read a book (chapter by chapter) is like eating a cake one horizontal layer at a time. You have to eat almost the whole thing in order to be sure what the cake is like. Not very efficient!

Bill’s experience Bill had so many books that he had to convert a garage into a library to store them all. When he actually starting previewing them, he found that he had several copies of many of the books, since he’d never opened most of them.


Practise your previewing skills on this Spd Rdng book. You’ve got a maximum of five minutes, starting now.

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