As an adult, it is easy to forget about basic skills such as how to read critically and effectively. We tend to assume that we know how to read: after all, we do it all the time. However, how much of what you read do you consider critically and carefully, rather than just skimming over the ideas? More importantly, what do you actually retain and put into use in your own thinking and writing?  

The importance of effective reading

It seems likely that, like most of us, the true answer is ‘not very much’. The sheer volume of reading matter available in the digital world is overwhelming. 

However, effective reading skills are important right through life, and especially in thought leadership. You need to keep pace with what is going on in your domain, and be able to respond thoughtfully to developments. Your thinking needs to be informed by other people’s ideas—and that means that you need to understand those ideas, including their limitations.

This, in turn, means that you need to find a way to ensure that you retain important ideas from what you read.

Developing effective reading

Much that you will have learned in school about how to read critically, and how to retain information is applicable. 

By ‘reading critically’, we mean engaging with what you are reading, and evaluating and analysing the text and ideas as you go. This means thinking about why the author wrote the book or article, and what ‘angle’ they have taken. You need to consider whether you agree with them, and why. 

You also need a strategy to help you to remember what you have read. One well-known strategy is known as SQ3R (for survey, question, read, recall, review). The idea is that you start with a quick scan to get a sense of the article or chapter. You then develop a set of questions that you will use to guide your reading, such as ‘How does this relate to my experience?’ and ‘How does this fit with my knowledge of the theory?’. You then read the article, making sure that you engage with the ideas and consider them as you go. The next step, recall, involves making a conscious effort to remember what you have read, and think about it. It can be helpful to make notes or highlight sections at this point. The final step is reviewing the material, usually through your highlights or notes.

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

How tools can help

This may sound like a complex process, but there are tools that can help. One example is Readwise. This is a subscription app, and the full version is currently only available on iOS, though an Android version is in development. By all accounts—and more than one reviewer—it is well worth the minimal monthly cost, and you can try it for free for up to 60 days.

Readwise works by bringing together anything you have highlighted from other reading apps, including Kindle, Medium, Instapaper and even Twitter. The app will automatically sync your highlights and create a library for you. You can also import highlights from physical books too, although this is a manual process. The app then creates a daily ‘review’ email for you, so you get to see your highlights again. In other words, this takes all the work out of the ‘recall’ and ‘review’ parts of SQ3R.

You can control how often and when the emails arrive, and also how many highlights are included. The highlights are selected automatically using an algorithm designed to help you maximise retention. However, you can bump books or articles up or down the list so that you review them more or less often—helpful if you find that you have moved on from the ideas in one particular source. The daily review can also include highlights from other people, which is quite an interesting way of exploring other ideas. 

If you pay for the full Readwise package, you can import your highlights to specific note-taking software, including Evernote and Notion. You can also organise your highlights using tags, which makes it easier to find them. This is particularly helpful in enabling you to bring together ideas from different authors about the same subject, and therefore to review and compare these ideas. 

Automation makes sense

Reading to learn is an active process. Tools like Readwise can automate some of the ‘grunt work’ for you. There are other such tools. Please share your experience in the comments below. 

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