7 Ways to Legally Break the “Speed” Limit

Woody Allen once said …

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes … It involves Russia.”

It’s amusing, of course, but it raises a good point …

Is it really possible to double, triple or quadruple your reading speed and still maintain a useful comprehension level?

For copywriters, it’s an important question. Because when you’re not writing, chances are you’re reading. I don’t know about you, but if I’m preparing to write a promo (or even one of these articles), I probably spend 40-50% of my time reading.

Although I enjoy reading, like most people, I’m always looking for ways to do things more efficiently throughout the day. And if I can read a book or article in half or one-third the time, it would increase my productivity immensely, not to mention my income.

Chances are, it would do the same for you.

So I set out to find some answers …

The first thing I wanted to know was how fast the average person reads.

According to Keith Raymer, a psycholinguist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, 95% of college-level students read between 200 and 400 words per minute (wpm) with the majority falling right in the middle at 300 wpm.

So if 300 wpm is the average, how fast do speed readers read?

Beth Moreno, a speed-reading teacher at the University of Texas, says she can read at a rate of 900 wpm if she really pushes herself, but feels “the upper limit is close to 1,000 words per minute.”

Okay, that’s fine, but can you read at a pace of 1,000 wpm and still enjoy a high level of comprehension?

Apparently not.

Ronald Carver, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor of education research and psychology, did examinations of speed-reading rates above 600 wpm and found that the retention level is low or non-existent. In 1992, Carver released a study pointing out that many educationalists deem a reading comprehension level of 50% as being unusable.

The easy conclusion to draw from this is that if you’re an average reader (300 wpm), doubling your reading speed is about the most you should hope for or expect. After that, your comprehension of the material simply drops off too much.

But based on taking a few speed tests (I clocked in at 353 wpm) and what seems comfortable to me, I feel a more realistic goal to shoot for would be a reading speed of about 450 wpm. At this rate, you’re still reading and not just skimming.

Here are seven ways you can increase your reading speed starting today:

  • Use a pointer – Speed-reading pioneer Evelyn Wood (who actually coined the term “speed reading” in the 1950s) believed that everyone reads a word at about the same rate. The difference is that poor readers have to double back and re-read certain words. So part of her method involved moving a pointer (your finger, pen, pencil, etc.) at a steady pace below each word you read. This maintains your eye focus on the words and prevents you from going back and re-reading.
  • Avoid “subvocalization”– Wood’s other main reading innovation involved training people to suppress the instinct of “subvocalization.” You are subvocalizing when you pronounce every word either out loud or in your mind. The idea is that doing so slows you down. Almost everyone subvocalizes to some degree. Speed-reading advocates suggest you should try not to pronounce every word – instead just think their meaning.
  • Practice reading blocks of words – Some call it “chunking.” You may do this already without thinking. Rather than reading a word at a time, train yourself to read in larger “chunks.” You can increase your reading speed substantially if you read phrases and sentences as one chunk – and derive their collective meaning instantaneously.
  • Get rid of distractions – It’s best to find a solitary place to read – free from music, noise and other distractions. Turn off your cell phone, shut off your computer – eliminate as many distractions as you can. If you think wearing ear plugs will help, buy a pair and wear them.
  • Size up what you’re reading and get a feel for the importance of each section – Depending on what you’re about to read, you may be able to skim over areas that aren’t relevant or don’t interest you. Try to identify the “filler” before you start and give it the appropriate amount of attention as you start to read. If you’re reading a non-fiction book, you might be able to skip large portions of text or even entire chapters.
  • Try to avoid re-reading – Maintain consistent focus so you don’t have to skip back and forth between sections you’ve already read. If it helps, take a sheet of paper or an index card and drag it down the page as you read, covering each line once you’ve read it.
  • Read a lot with these tips in mind – If you’re committed to read faster, consciously use these tips and practice often.

Another thing to remember is that your reading speed will vary depending upon what you’re reading.

When you’re looking to find key and relevant information – such as when you’re doing research for your latest copywriting project or reading a non-fiction book – you generally will want to read faster to increase your productivity. So implementing these tips will come in handy.

But when you read a novel, you probably want to enjoy and savor every word.

Plus, as copywriters, we try to read at least one promo a day. And, of course, the whole point of the exercise is to read every word so you can get the rhythm, tone and feel of how the copywriter persuades the reader to their point of view. Flying through it like your house is on fire might save you time, but it’s highly unlikely it would help you become a better writer.

The bottom line is anything you can do during the day to become more productive makes sense. And if you can increase your reading speed by 50%, over the course of your life, it could potentially free up thousands and thousands of hours for you to do others things you enjoy.

Online Speed-Reading Tests:

Other Resources:

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: July 23, 2008

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