Quick, quick, slow: the science of reading

‘How long will it take?’ and ‘How much will it cost?’ are two common questions from clients. I’ve developed a fairly reliable way to estimate the time needed for various editorial and writing tasks. But come what may, all the words need to be read, and that takes time. Now there is scientific evidence that – as editorial professionals already know – there is a bottom (time) line beyond which we humans cannot improve without compromising comprehension.

This post looks at the science of reading, suggests six ways to read like a professional editor or proofreader and reports one fascinating fact about eyes and ears.
How slowly/carefully do you read? Can you spot the deliberate errors?

The daily read

How big is your ‘to read’ heap? Mine is vertiginous and growing. A few weeks ago I attended a local literary festival with a friend and fellow SfEP member. The event featured interesting and entertaining talks from authors local and not-so local. Even better – we were given free books. And better still, there was a bookstall, so we bought books … Now that’s what I call a grand day out (see photo, below).

I had very good intentions of getting stuck straight in with the leisure reading, but as usual life – well, work – intervened. Five weeks on and I’ve barely made it through the first few chapters of the first book.

That doesn’t mean I’m not reading, though. A quick audit of my daily reading habits this month gives:

  • toothpaste tubes, shampoo bottles and incorrectly punctuated jars of moisturiser (so annoying, and yet I buy the same product year after year)
  • emails, social media sites and online newspapers (for breakfast!)
  • work-related reading, amounting to many thousands of words a day
  • printed stuff delivered by the postie, which is either quickly jettisoned into the recycling bin or added to the ‘to read’ heap
  • instructions (recipes, food packaging, road signs and assorted domestic paraphernalia)
  • subtitles (if you haven’t tried the Spanish thriller I know Who You Are you’ve missed a treat).

It often feels as if the only time I’m not reading something is when I go to sleep (and dream of unread, and unwritten, books).

Wouldn’t it be neat if I could do some of that reading more quickly?

The science bit

Each week the postie brings my printed copy of New Scientist. (I like to think that the to-be-read copies provide extra insulation for my office!) Every now and then I skim through them and pull out articles I promise myself I will read. And this week, dear reader, I read one.

Aptly titled ‘A mountain of words’, the article by Emma Young (New Scientist, 11 February 2017, pp. 35–37) didn’t provide me with the longed-for scientific guide to reading more quickly. Instead, I learned that there are good reasons why we editors and proofreaders need to take our time when reading (and therefore why there are corners that just can’t be cut when it comes to pricing our work).

Emma Young reports that there are demonstrable limits on reading time. It goes like this:

  • The eyes focus on the letters in the centre of the visual field.
  • The main focus area at the back of the eyeball, the fovea, can concentrate on an area about as wide as your thumb held at arm’s length (e.g. as wide as the word ‘reading’).
  • Quick, small movements of the eyes known as saccades* reposition the foveae so that the eyes focus along the line of text.
  • The eyes hover on the area for an average of 250 milliseconds.

Meanwhile the brain is registering the incoming information from the eyes and trying to make sense of it. How the brain decodes the visual information is related to familiarity, so the speed of reading is intimately related to the size of the reader’s vocabulary.

According to the article, a university-educated person can read (and comprehend) between 200 and 400 words per minute. However, familiarity breeds contempt and researchers know that readers tend to skip words, especially those that are short, frequent or predictable.

Proofreaders (and editors) know this too, which is why we are trained to read with greater care – concentrating on all the words, rather than glossing over the sentences to merely gain meaning.

Researchers have found that, although it is possible to read up to twice as quickly as the quoted 400 words per minute, such speed results in skimming rather than deep and meaningful reading.

But consider the lower speed limit mentioned in the article: 200 words per minute. That equates to a rate of 12,000 words an hour – an eye-wateringly fast pace for most proofreaders, never mind copy-editors.

I thought that my habitual ‘leisure’ reading rate would be at the slower end of the scale so I timed myself reading the New Scientist article. I was rather surprised that I clocked 1400 words in 5 minutes (16,800 words per hour), roughly in the middle of the typical reading range (at 280 words per minute). However, by that point I had already read the article several times, and I was definitely not in proofreading mode.

There are two things that I found particularly interesting about the article:

  • Firstly, the mechanics of reading, summarised above, chimed with the information I was taught as a newbie proofreader/editor – namely that the eye scans over the words (from left to right in Western materials) looking more at the shape of the words than the individual letters. That’s why proofreaders need to sl o w  d o   w   n and, for instance, check pairs of letters that may be transposed (lt, fl, ie, ei) or mistyped (nn instead of m), or look for   errant   spaces or incorrect punctuation..
  • Secondly, it suggests that, as I suspected, there are specific differences between reading on screen and on paper, and there is some evidence (though not yet enough) that you are less likely to learn deeply when reading on screen.

I’ll talk more about reading on screen vs. paper some other time. For now, here are six tips on slowing down and reading like an editor/proofreader.

Six tips for slow, focused reading

  1. Make the text bigger. That’s where on-screen working has a definite advantage. Not only does this make it easier to see the smaller detail, it means your eyes will focus on fewer details at a time, making it more likely that you will spot glitches
    (compare ‘leaming’ with ‘ learning’).
  2. Use a ‘ruler’. On screen, arrange the active window so that you can scroll through the text line by line, as if you were covering up the text (on paper) with a ruler or blank sheet. This helps you to concentrate on the line in question rather than the text above/below.
  3. Check and recheck. If you find an error in a sentence, mark the change needed, but then re-read the sentence before moving on. It’s easy for one error to distract you from another.
  4. Read TEXT IN CAPTALS even more slowly. You can’t rely on the shape of the text to help you read the words. Check such text letter by letter.
  5. If in doubt, print it out. Try it: see anything you missed the first time?
  6. Quick, quick, slow. Tune in to some relaxing music. Pulsating rhythms may make you unwittingly read more quickly.*

One thing I haven’t addressed in this post is typical word-based rates for writing, copy-editing or proofreading. That’s because word-based timing can vary enormously from project to project, and from person to person. Such projects also involve far more than mere ‘reading the words’, so lots of other factors have to be taken into account when preparing a quotation. That’s why I recommend seeing a sample of any material before agreeing a price with a client. For more on that, and ideas for monitoring your proofreading/editing speed, see the SfEP Guide: Pricing a Project.

* Fascinating fact

A recent news item in New Scientist (21 July 2017) reveals that eardrums realign very slightly during saccades – perhaps to help us work out which of the objects we see are responsible for the sounds we hear.

Free books from the BeaconLit festival

Free books to join my ‘to read’ heap