Sep 8 2010 4:24pm

Do you skim?

This is kind of follow-up post to “Gulp or sip,” and like that post it arises from a conversation with a friend. (A different friend. I have a lot of friends who like to read.) This friend said that if she was getting bored with something in a book she’d skip ahead until it got interesting. “How do you know?” I asked. “I skim,” she replied. “If there’s a boring action sequence, or a boring sex scene, I’ll skim until we get back to something interesting.” To clarify—she doesn’t read all the words. She stops reading and just casts her eyes over the text, speed reading occasional phrases until she has missed the bit she doesn’t like. It’s as if she’s re-reading and she decides to skip a thread she didn’t enjoy, except without having ever read it in the first place. Or it’s like the way you might look for a particular bit on a page to quote without getting sucked in to reading the whole thing, except without having read it before. It’s not like the way you can keep reading in your sleep and suddenly realise you didn’t take in the last few pages. It’s a deliberate action—the way in a non-fiction book you might decide to not read a chapter that covers a topic you don’t need. Except, of course, that she does it with fiction, and not to a clearly marked end point, but to where the text gets interesting again.

I never do this. I’ve never even thought of it. It seems really weird to me.

So what I want to know is, do other people do this?

Ugol’s law states that if you ask “Am I the only one who...?” the answer is always no. There are things absolutely nobody does, but if any one person does something, then there are others who also do it. So it seems very likely that it’s not just my friend, and other people do this.

What I want to know is, don’t you miss things? I mean it might look like a boring sex scene, but who knows that the protagonists aren’t going to break off foreplay to discuss the way neutron stars work? (Real example.) Or who knows what clever things the author might be doing in a boring battle scene? Patrick O’Brian uses them for characterisation. If a book is really too dull for me to care what happens, I might put it down altogether, but if it’s interesting enough to keep reading, I can’t imagine just skipping a chunk—nor have I really got a handle on where you’d start reading again. How can you tell? And how do you know you didn’t miss something vital that might have made the whole book make more sense?

I’m talking about reading for pleasure here. I understand how it’s possible to read boring non-fiction for information, and skip the sections labeled as containing no useful information. And I’m mostly talking about reading SF and fantasy, though goodness knows I don’t skim when I’m reading mainstream novels either.

I read in hope of little sparkling moments that are going to turn my head inside out. I increase my chances of getting them by reading the kind of writers who have done that to me before: (Vinge, Delany, Dean, Le Guin, Wilson, Schroeder, Cherryh...) where really skipping even a paragraph might leave you lost and confused at the end. I can see that there are other writers who I enjoy whose work isn’t that dense, but I still don’t want to miss anything. Who knows where that moment might be hidden? It’s either worth reading or it isn’t, I can’t see the point of half-reading it. I can’t understand how that could be fun. If it hasn’t sucked me in so that I want to keep reading it then I might as well be eating broccoli. Or reading something else.

Are there books that have good bits and bad bits so clearly defined that this makes sense as a reading strategy? Why have I never read any of them? (Hypothesis: They’re all about vampires and pirates.) How widespread is this anyway? If you do it, what do you get out of it? And if you’ve done it, do you feel as if you’ve really read the book and can talk about it afterwards?

(Health warning: If you do this skimming thing with my books, please don’t mention it. You might send me into a decline.)

“Welcome Peek...” photo/illustration by Flickr user Liber the poet

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Victor Finch
1. Victor Finch
If I can feel out a decent story-arc lies ahead, I'll plough on through. Otherwise, I'll set the book down and never pick it up again. I can't skim, in case I miss something important.
james loyd
2. gaijin
I can't skim OR give up entirely. Once I'm more than a few pages in, I'm committed. OCD/Asperger's/whatever won't allow otherwise.

As a child in the summer reading program, I felt that even if I had read the text of a non-fiction book I hadn't really "read" the book and couldn't count it in my log if I didn't also read every picture caption, sidebar, footnote, etc.
mark Proctor
3. mark-p
I can't skim OR give up entirely. Once I'm more than a few pages in, I'm committed.
Same here with a few exceptions for rereads, e.g Robert Jordan could write a whole page of description between two lines of dialogue. But there is always a chance of missing something important.
Victor Finch
4. Amy B.
I've definitely skipped around in a scene, and they do tend to be sex and action scenes. This is because sometimes writers get a little bit too caught up in describing the actions accurately even when they aren't relevant. For example, let's say that the writer imagines their MC doing this complicated, kick-ass spin move as they drive a sword into a villain's minion. The description of the move might take a paragraph, and that's all well and good, but the only thing I really care about is if the sword hits the minion or misses. So my eyes will skim a page to find the key actions. All I miss are the detailed descriptions. Some readers might love detailed descriptions in their action scenes, but I prefer to focus on the action-consequence play.

I don't do this terribly often, but enough that I know what to look for. Basically I'll see the beginning and end of each sentence and be able to recognize if anything important happens in the middle of the sentence. This is thrown out of the window for writers who are insanely good at writing action, whose every word is truly necessary rather than merely a means to an end. But there are few who are good at every single aspect of writing, so I'm not going to toss a book I otherwise enjoy aside just because the writer isn't quite as adept at writing action scenes.
Daniel Hanley
5. dmhman749
I do this sometimes. You seem to be misinformed about what skimming is though. If you know how to skim well, you can do it and still know what is going on. You may miss little bits of characterization, but if you know how to do it, you don't miss any plot. You are not actually skipping the sections you don't have much interest in, you are just skimming over them to pick up what is happening in the boring parts without having to suffer through them. I could skim a 500 page book in a couple hours and write a 10 page paper detailing the plot of said book.

I rarely do this on books i read for enjoyment because it does take away from the enjoyment for me. You miss the little details in the writting that make it a good book and you might as well have read the wikipedia page on the book giving the summery. But I have come across some books that I enjoy overall, but just find some character perspectives very boring, so i do this to get to the characters i find interesting faster. A good writer can generally keep all plot lines interesting though, but it does happen sometimes.
Victor Finch
6. BStokes
I very rarely skim, but I have found instances when I just "want to get to the good parts" and find myself lightly reading (not committing to memory) paragraphs or sections just to get back in the groove of the parts of the story that I find most interesting. With my favorite authors, I would never, EVER, resort to such a practice, even though their detailed description of a particular situation may far exceed the verbage I find necessary to define the moment (Tolkein comes to mind....utter sacrilege to skip a mere "the"!) That being said, and as I commented on the previous thread, I am a rapid reader. Works that do not completely challenge me either in thought process, content, or sheer size have the tendency to make my mind wander as I read. I can, therefore, see where 'skimming' would be a useful technique. I, however, shall reserve this practice for only the 'fluffiest' of fluff fiction.
7. Freelancer
There was a time in my life where I was skimming, but not in the way described here. I had gotten into reading the kinds of novels where non-verbals were mostly just designed to break up the dialog, and were not very interesting. So I'd start to skip over anything not leading with quote marks. I don't think I realized I was doing this for quite some time. But I always knew that there was something incomplete.

Then when I returned to reading the classic sci-fi authors such as Asimov, Verne, Wells, Van Vogt, Bradbury, et al, I realized that you cannot afford to ignore any of the text. I forced myself to read every line, and have done so ever since. You certainly wouldn't dare skim while reading Salvatore, Cherryh or Card.
Victor Finch
8. Confutus
I read just about everything at a more or less a skimming pace the first time through, which may be why I find myself reading two or three times faster than most other people. If the tale is engaging enough, I'll like it enough to reread later, again and again, and pick up another little bit or piece each time through.

That means that writers who use a style which has to be read carefully the first time to pick up vital but obscure information in order for the rest of the story to make sense have a hard time keeping my interest or attention through the entire book. Cherryh and LeGuin I do like, but to my taste, Cherryh has gotten easier to read, and LeGuin harder.
Ben Frey
9. BenPatient
I'm a regular skimmer, unfortunately. If it was good, I typically read again in more detail. I skip paragraphs of description sometimes if they really seem boring.
Marcus W
10. toryx
I don't, as a rule, skim very often unless I'm not enjoying the book very much. If I end up skimming it means that the book hasn't captured my imagination and I'll usually put it down. There are times when I've put forth enough time and energy into a book that I'll allow it if I'm struggling but by and large if the skimming becomes an issue, the book isn't worth reading.
Victor Finch
11. Rowanmdm
I'm an occasional skimmer during first reads (rereads are a different story). I usually skim when a) it's a graphic sex scene, b) when it's a recap of the previous books in a series or c) when it's a boring action scene by an author I know doesn't use these moments for serious plot/character development. Scenorio "a" is the most common for me. I feel like the little bits I may occasionally miss are outweighed by not making myself uncomfortable from reading the sex scenes.
Twila Price
12. anderyn
I skim in one of two situations.

1. I am re-reading something and I really only want to re-read the relevant character arc. In that case, though, I already know what I'm missing and I also know what I want.

2. I'm reading a romance (of the Harlequin style) and the mind popcorn is just too vapid to stand. Then I'll start skimming or, even more damning, reading it backwards, end to front, just to make it interesting.

Can't say as I have ever skimmed one of your books, either. They're usually too dense to make that a good option. :-)
Evan Langlinais
13. Skwid
I will sometimes skim up to peek at how long a given conversation or passage or whatever is going to last, but I always return (on a first read) to cover the gap in detail.

What you describe seems weird, and somehow disrespectful, to me too.
Scott Sherris
14. ssherris
Sometimes I find myself skimming unconsciously and I have to force myself to go back and read every word. For that reason I like audiobooks, which force me to slow down and pay attention.

On purpose I almost always just skip the poems or songs that authors stuff into chapter openings or have their characters sing. Even if they contain some useful information about the story, it's almost never worth it to read through that.
Kate Nepveu
15. katenepveu
Yes, but it's not skipping sections, it's looking at paragraphs as a whole and evaluating them almost subconsciously, rather than reading them one-word-at-a-time--reading a little faster than I know I ought to, basically. I do it because I can't bear not to know what happens next; if I'm doing it because I'm bored, I stop reading. (Or I'm re-reading for only specific bits.)
Emily Cartier
16. Torrilin
I am most likely to skim with stuff like Tom Clancy doorstoppers, where you can quite reasonably pick a character, follow their storyline and skip *everything* else and come out with a coherent story. For a lot of his books, you might do that 4 or 5 times, and get a different story each time.

I don't like writing styles that drive me to that tho, because it's a sure thing that what really needs to happen to the book is massive cutting.
Pamela Adams
17. Pam Adams
If a book is uninteresting enough to make me want to skim, it's not interesting enough for me to keep reading, so I just quit.

I do occasionally look ahead to the end to see where the journey is going, but if I'm interested, I'm going to read right to the end.
Sydo Zandstra
18. Fiddler

I do this sometimes. You seem to be misinformed about what skimming is though. If you know how to skim well, you can do it and still know what is going on. You may miss little bits of characterization, but if you know how to do it, you don't miss any plot.

I agree. Skimming is not about moving your eyes fast over a page only. It's also about how you focus your eyes on certain parts of sentences while doing it. If you do it right, you focus on the right kind of words, and take in the words right before and after that one in the same glance. Compare it to flashing lights, or sonar pulses: one shot and you take in half a line, even subconsciously. Next shot and you take in the next half of the line.

But you cannot do it with every writer, as others pointed out. Works good on Feist's latest books though. I still like his stuff enough to read it.
Alex Brown
19. AlexBrown
I skim only when I feel like it's necessary, like if the difference between me throwing the book across the room in frustration or finishing it. I skimmed through a massive chunk of "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (God, that book wouldn't end!) and outright skipped the 800 chapters on the science behind creating the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park". I never don't finish a book so if I don't skim then it just prolongues my suffering. But for the most part, if the boring bits are short enough I'll just plough through them.
Victor Finch
20. Amanda M.
I absolutely skim, particularly over painfully descriptive passages. I'm an action gal, whether that's actual physical action or thought or whatever, anything that's not "the sky was a deep shade of blue" ad nauseum. It's a technique I picked up in undergrad when being forced to read the painfully prolific British classics.

I have to say, I've never felt I've missed any of the story by skimming parts. I get the jist of what's going on. In fact, I'd say if it wasn't for skimming there's whole books I'd miss out on entirely as I'd get bogged down in the descriptive bits.
Jeff Weston
21. JWezy
I never do this on the first read; I finish almost everything I start (even if I don't like it that much), but I read it all. Sheer bloody-mindedness, I think they call it overseas.

The only exceptions that I can think of are:

- Amber novels (Roger Zelazny) - I will skim over the pages of "xxx....yyy...zzz..." that he uses to describe a long pattern-walk. Really, did he expect me to read all that?

- Les Miserables (Victor Hugo) - I skimmed (on the first and only reading) over a 100-page flashback to the Napoleonic Wars, once I realized it was all character building about characters I hated anyway. I still feel guilty about that, a bit.

On a re-read, I will typically read even more closely, since I am re-reading not to get the plot but to absorb the nuance, to find the things I missed before. That said, if I know that a particular plot thread goes nowhere and bores me, I will skim past it on a re-read, but I always feel guilty.
Alexander Austin
22. AlecAustin
So... I feel there are different kinds of skimming. I used to be able to read holographically, where I just looked at a paragraph and absorbed the gist of it, which seems to be similar to what dmhman749 and Fiddler are describing. That kind of broke down the more I read, though, possibly because the caliber of book I was reading went up (I read a ton of D&D and gaming tie-ins and work that followed similar formulae back in the day), and possibly because I was just paying closer attention to nuances and word choice.

Regardless, when I skim these days, it's mostly because I'm either re-reading something where I know I don't want to re-read one particular bit (e.g. the disastrous dinner party in A Civil Campaign, which is physically painful for me to read), or because I'm reading something where the author has some plot threads which are actually interesting and others which I know will make me want to tear my hair out if I actually read them (e.g. Steven Erikson, back before I gave up on his books as a lost cause).
Victor Finch
23. BWM
Oh yeah, I definitely skim when appropriate. Of course, skimming is really more speed reading without attempting any retention, and usually if the book is any good I will stop and pick up what I missed at a later point.

Sometimes this is just some sort of awkward scene or chapter, or I've also been known to do this with interleaved characters to follow what's happening next with a particular character. But most of the time, it's just because whatever I'm reading has hit a dry patch and I feel like I can exclude retaining the actual content.

The other case, of course, is picking up a unknown book / author at the bookstore / library. I'll speed skim the first 50ish pages to see if it looks interesting, but that's really a different case entirely.
Victor Finch
24. Debbiewil
I skim often. I skim over sex scenes, fight scenes, scenes that are too technical and anything else that doesn't interest me or contribute to the story. I've never felt that I miss anything; in fact, I think I gain more understanding of the actual storyline, because I'm not bogging down in sidetracks.
Jo Walton
25. bluejo
This "holographic" method of reading a paragraph without actually reading it that Alec and several of you mention isn't a skill I have ever acquired or even thought of. Wow. That's like a superpower.

I was assuming it was like the thing I sometimes find myself doing with my LJ reading list, where I'll read the first paragraph of somebody's post, see that it's all about their cat, and go down to the next person's post, maybe reading the first sentence of the last paragraph on my way by to check it hasn't changed to something more interesting. I never do this with books either. Indeed, if I find myself doing it too much with people on my reading list I tend to take them off it, even though I like them, because I don't much like doing it there either.
Victor Finch
26. Lsana
I feel almost like this is a confession. Bless me, Father, for I have skimmed...

I don't do it terribly often, and never intentionally, but there are places in books where I just can't focus. The David Weber Honorverse books were the prime offenders for me. I cared about the characters, and I wanted to know what happened to them, so there was no way I was putting the books down. But at the same time, I just don't have the visual imagination to be able to spend 10 pages reading about the relative position of ships in space. So I would kind of glance over the paragraphs until I saw quotation marks, at which point it was obvious the characters had returned and I should start reading closely again.

And yes, it did come back to bite me sometimes. More than once I read a line of dialogue and said something to the effect of "Wait a second! He died?" and have to go back to the battle scene and read it again. But it didn't happen as often as you might think. Even just glancing at the text, I was able to get the gist of what happened.
Rikka Cordin
27. Rikka
It goes against all my book reading principles to skip more than a sentence or so on a first read. I'm even hard-pressed to skip sections I know I don't like in books I've already read. I often find that it breaks the continuity and the flow of the story, sometimes to the point where it can become difficult for me to return to the same level of emotional investment or even intellectual interest from before I skipped/skimmed.

All the things other people skip are the things I revel in (fight scenes, sex scenes) unless they are HORRIBLY written. And I'll agree with a few other commenters...if I'm more than a few pages in, I'm in for the long haul. Even Twilight couldn't stop me finishing the book.
Sydo Zandstra
28. Fiddler

It only works if an author/writer is holding to generally used grammar rules when building sentences. Yoda-speak ('About the Force, confused you are' instead of 'You are confused about the Force) for example isn't good writing to use this technique on, because you'll miss expected reference points in the sentences.

And it doesn't work on whole books. But for little reading spurts along the way, it does. :) So hardly a super power. Just an acquired skill.
Victor Finch
29. cranscape
Skimming is something you learn in college as a lit major. Unless you are the rare bird who can read 1500 pages a week along with work and life and stuff. In college it was just a survival thing and I felt guilty. I knew I was doing a disservice to a good book and I started resenting the system that forced me to do it.

In regular life...if I am skimming it is because it isn't a very good book. It's like watching a terrible tv show because you like a certain actor or one storyline. You multitask until you that person comes on screen and then you are all eyes. In both cases it is because the book/show isn't doing it for you otherwise. I don't typically do either, but if the situation is right I can do it. I'd say most of the time the books are not good to begin with and I'm just trying to salvage the rest of it since I spent money on it or a friend wanted me to read it.
Victor Finch
30. Teka Lynn
I don't skim on a first reading, but I do jump. I read a bit, jump ahead, jump around, then pick up where I originally left off and read straight through. I don't consider this spoiling myself, I'm whetting my appetite with previews.
David Levinson
31. DemetriosX
I was going to say I never do this, but that isn't entirely true. I never do it for more than a couple of sentences, though, usually if there's a lot of uninteresting descriptives going on. (Anne Perry going on and on about clothes, for example. It fits the period, but I don't even know what all those different materials are!)

If I find myself skimming more than to the end of the paragraph, it usually means I'm too tired or diestracted to read at all and I put the book down. I've rarely found myself so uninterested in the text of a book that I can't pick it up again at some point and read it properly. In 40+ years of voracious reading, I can count the number of novels I've simply given up completely on the fingers of one hand.
JS Bangs
32. jaspax
I skim rarely, and when I do it's never a compliment to the book. There's basically two situations where I resort to it: 1) when the book is badly written but has a good plot, and 2) when the author has a severe case of logorrhea. In either case, I use the "holographic" reading technique that Fiddler and others have mentioned, which lets me pick up the important points of the plot without having to read all of the tedious individual words. It had never occurred to me that this is something special.

But doing this takes away most of the enjoyment of a really good book, and also tends to reduce my long-term recall, so it's really only useful for getting past annoying passages of otherwise good books.
Victor Finch
33. sniffy
I almost never skim.

If I'm inclined to skim, it's a pretty reliable signal that this book (or, almost as likely, this author's entire oeuvre) isn't going to cut it for me in the long run. And if that's the case, my time is better spent putting that book down for good, and searching for another, better one.

I've never regretted not finishing a book that couldn't hold my attention entirely. But I ceratinly have regretted slogging through on-and-off writing "just to find out what happens," which always makes me feel cheap and used.

There are writers out there that don't have any boring parts. Lots of writers, actually. Go find them!
Victor Finch
34. R. Emrys
I do this between the point where I give up on a book, and the point where I realize I've given up on the book. Other than that, I rarely skim.
I can think of one author who consistently does several things well and one thing badly--long battle sequences with 1-2 important plot points in them--and I've learned through long practice how to skim those scenes for the important bits so I can get on to the good stuff. But it's not a generalizable skill, and certainly not something I'd dare try with an unfamiliar author.
Elizabeth Gingles
35. Spera
When I skim it's not on purpose. Somtimes I just get really excited and have to know what's happening so I end up reading faster and faster. Like, when a Jordan/Sanderson book comes out. Then I will either slow down and reread it a second time, or listen to the audiobooks. The first time through speed reading ends up being a completely different expirience then when I audiobook it so it's like double the fun.
j p
36. sps49
I did it to skip the passages in the later Gor books that went on and on about where who's natural place was and wasn't. When I noticed it appeared to be 90% of the wordcount, I stopped reading the series.
Victor Finch
37. 12stargazers
I skim fiction, but it's only if I start getting bored with the story. Then I do a combo of skimming styles.

I'll do a bit of "holographic" skimming of 2-3 ( I always thought of it as doing a visual key word search). Then I'll skip forward to the next jump cut or chapter beginning. Rince, lather and repeat 3 or 4 times.

After that, I skip to the end to see if I successfully predicted the ending. If I did, I put the book down and never go back. If didn't, I'll go back, pick up where I left off and read in full.

Occasionally, I'll wind up reading the book backward, one scene at a time after skimming to the end. I do that with Cherryh a lot.

I skim non-fiction all the time that way. For reports and such, I'll holographically scan each page to get the gist (and do a verbal report for my boss) then go back later and give it a close reading so I can mine it for data. When I'm reading non-fiction for me, I skip the verbal reporting.

I've done the read the first and last sentences in a paragraph, but that's for when I'm hunting down data or dealing with a digest-format e-mail from a list serve.
Andrew Barton
38. MadLogician
I've just skimmed through 37 comments.

I find that I'm far more likely to skim-read on the web than when I have paper in front of me.
Victor Finch
39. mbg1968
Skimming is my default.
I slow down and enjoy every word when I am really, REALLY enjoying something.
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of books that I come across that make me 'want' to slow down. But I'm always hoping...and sometimes pleasantly surprised! (I'm also someone who feels no qualms about not finishing something I'm not enjoying.)
Victor Finch
40. JoeNotCharles
Oh, yes, all the time. Usually the way I do it is I only read the left half of pages. That way I don't have to keep moving my eyes, I just scan down the column, and it's usually easy to fill in what's happening at the end of these sentences from context. If I realize I don't know what's going on, I'll go back and read it in full.

I tend to do this with books where the prose isn't very good, but I'm reading out of a sense of obligation - such as when it's something that lots of people argue about and I want to finish it so I can make a judgement on the ending. It works especially well when the prose is repetitive so even if I miss something, chances are it will be repeated in half a page anyway.

I'm looking at you, Thomas Covenant.
Alexander Austin
41. AlecAustin
So, I have been trying to replicate the experience of holographic reading with this comment thread (For Science! And also Jo's amusement), because I suspect that Fiddler (@28) and I are actually using different techniques that produce similar results.

What I can do now (and this is manifestly less effective than what I remember that I used to be able to do) is read block-shaped paragraphs really quickly, putting together the sentences in my head after my eyes have already moved on. I say block-shaped for a reason: While I can speed-read the first paragraph of Jo's post, it takes more concentration, and I lose more: words, phrases, entire sentences. (My initial reaction was that I couldn't read that paragraph like that at all.)

My feeling-- and this may not be true, because I tried to analyze this back when I was a kid and couldn't quite describe it accurately-- is that I used to be able to do this even less linearly: Instead of parsing chunks of paragraph, several lines at a time, I would sometimes be able to take in entire paragraphs at once.

It's actually quite strange trying to read like this again, because college pretty much broke me of it. I find it nearly impossible to read academic books in this way because of the density (and often leadenness) of their prose. And as Jo says, my favorite authors don't lend themselves to this kind of speed-reading/skimming; for me, at least, it's inimical to immersion and emotional engagement, which are the primary reasons I read now (as opposed to when I was a teenager, when ideas were the thing).
Other Alias
42. ghostcrab311
I find that there are times when I am engaged enough to want to know what happens, but not engaged enough to bother reading it all. Then it is a skim to the end.
Victor Finch
43. mityorkie
If there's any kind of poem or song or bardic lyrics within a novel it gets skimmed, then reread if exceptional. The other sections that I tend to jump are philosophical monologues, especially if the philosophy is of low quality (see Rand, Ayn). In either case the problem is that the words are not advancing the narrative and the novelist is trying to be some other kind of writer.
Victor Finch
45. Joeyh
I'm afraid that skimming is a bad habit the web encourages, and most people who got down to here in this thread skimmed it. I know I did.

But the only time I can think of intentionally skimming while reading a novel is if there are multiple disconnected viewpoints, and I just don't care about one of them. But care about another at least enough not to put the book down. Maybe I'd skim to the end of the boring viewpoint, and if I miss anything -- well, the character I care about didn't see it either.

I do often read fast, without skimming.
I don't try to take in every nuance of a book on first read. If it's a good book, I will enjoy catching them on second, third, etc read.

While we're on the topic of weird ways of reading, does anybody else read series out of order, without really minding?
john mullen
46. johntheirishmongol
I'm not a page at a glance reader, but I do read very fast. About the only time I skim material is when it is so technical that I am completely lost and don't get anything out of it. Or if its a sex scene that is not germane to the plot.


It depends on the series. You can read most any Cussler book alone or read in order. I don't think you can read Wheel of Time too much out of order because you miss too much
Alida Saxon
47. alida
I do skim, but usually it's those books that are coming apart so badly that I just want it over with. It's a lot like fast forwarding through a mediocre film to get to the climax.

Instead of dropping the book entirely, I skim ahead, with focus on the last few chapters. I do this to see out my predictions as to who dies, who lives, etc. The book has already lost my emotional attachment, so worry about missing something fades rather quickly. The book had 100+ pages to get my interest.
Brit Mandelo
48. BritMandelo
I don't skim, and I never realized other people did it until college, either--but I also read very, very, very fast. There's never a reason for me to skim. A boring scene will only take me a minute or at most two, maybe as little as a few seconds, to get through.

I do, however, stop reading books that consistently bore or irritate me for more than 20 pages. Sometimes I can be generous and give them fifty or a hundred pages to catch back up with themselves if I liked the beginning. If I don't like the writing enough to want to care for fifty pages--I have better books to be reading.

(Books that I like the most are books that are so dense, lyrical and well-constructed that they actually make me slow down to savor the sentences and paragraphs as art-forms. I also enjoy three-hour reads and fun romp mysteries, but like candy versus a three course dinner, they're not the same.)

Textbooks are a weird thing--I don't mean nonfiction books, I savor those the same way, but textbooks I have learned how to... It's not skimming; I skip nothing, but it's like my brain deconstructs the sentences without fully absorbing them and translates the important parts into condensed notes as I scribble them out? It's very odd, now that I think about it.
larry shirk
49. lorenzo
It depends. If I'm all of a sudden freaking bored but still hopeful, I'll skim. If I find I'm skimming more (than just occasionally), I'll re-evaluate to decide if I'm still interested.
If I run into a gross overt torture scene, I'll block-skip then skim, and also decide if this is there because an author just thinks it sells books or if the author just seems to like that stuff . An author that 'fails' that test goes on my 'never again' list - nothing that author ever writes again will be read by me. Even if they 'pass' they'll be on a mental 'beware' list.
Apparently, all of us who do sometimes skim take in some content that way, thus the drastic 'block-skip' - it's never a good sign.
Victor Finch
50. D. M. Domini
I tend to skim in..."lower quality" books. As others have pointed out, the best of the best authors (in my own humble opinion) tend to be dense and interesting enough that skimming WILL make you lose something. So I don't skim those, unless it's on a re-read.

But for authors not writing at that calibre, it's really easy to identify the boring patterns and jump over them until I get to something I find interesting. Lower-quality writing has a LOT of cruft that's nearly identical to the cruft other writers have written before. The reason I don't put these books down entirely is because some of them, while lacking severely in some (or many) areas, will often have at least ONE very interesting thing, and I love finding those. It's like gems in the rough. It may be a single character that's wonderfully fleshed out in a sea of cardboard cutouts. It may be one very good magical system that nobody else has quite done just like that. It may be some awesome idea that in itself is pretty darn cool to think about, but the execution of the idea in prose by that particular was...lacking in parts.

So. Yeah. With those books, I skim from time to time, usually when I'm irritated or bored by whatever track a particular scene is going on, until I get to the good parts.

Regarding the digesting paragraphs at a glance thing...I'm not quite so cool as to do that, but my eyes can identify entire words and phrases at a glance. Not quite good enough to gulp in a paragraph at a glance...unless it's a small paragraph of like 3 words...but it is interesting (to me at least) how a brain can somehow pick up the talent of looking at the shape of words as a whole instead of letter-by-letter like they teach you in school.
Joe Romano
51. Drunes
I've skimmed since high school -- a necessity to get through some of the required books in English class. Now I skim under two circumstances and never feel guilty. If I'm reading a writer I trust, I know there are things I can fly through. Yes, I may miss something, but if I do, I just skim backwards until I find out what it was.

I also skim when a book goes off in a weird direction when weirdness is not appropriate or if a book becomes boring. If things pick up, I'll start reading normally. If not, I'll toss the book aside.

And one other thing. I'm sure most have heard Elmore Leonard say that he leaves things out that everbody skips. Well, I've read a lot of his work and don't ever recall skipping one word of his. Oh I wish everyone could write like that!
Victor Finch
52. wandering-dreamer
Only if it's sex scenes and then I just pick out random sentences to read and, if the story has gotten back on track, I figure out where the sex stopped and the plot began and start again from there. It certainly didn't seem like that big a deal when I've done it.
Lindsey Turnbow
53. Obi
I don't skim because, yes, I'm worried I'll miss something. Occasionally I space out partway through a paragraph, but I (usually) go back and re-read it once I realize I have no idea what I just read.

BUT (it's big because I said so) I used to. I first read the Wheel of Time in fifth grade and seriously didn't even understand parts of it. I distinctly remember skimming the parts with Pedron Niall because I thought he was boring. I don't think so anymore, and I paid much more attention to his sections on later read-throughs of the series. But I was, like, ten, or something. I don't skim any more, but at the time, I was pretty much used to missing things by virtue of just not getting it anyway.

I should add: I just skimmed all the comments before mine. But it doesn't count because I was talking about fiction in the above paragraphs. So there. I also missed a lot of what people said in favor of a general idea of to skim or not to skim. I have to run my eyes over each sentence quickly in order to skim. I miss words but get most of what is said, except for the portions I flat out skipped (because that, too, is part of my skimming technique). And it's not nearly as epic as this "holographic" method some of you have mastered. That would be cool.
Cassandra Farrin
54. welovetea
I'm a structural thinker, so I can usually anticipate what's going to happen. If I cast my gaze across the page and all I see is what I expect without any interesting snatches of dialogue or words that pull me into unusual images, then, yeah, I totally skim!
I know this about myself because I hate--hate--reading stories without having first read that little blurb on the back of the book. I need some kind of framework for reading, especially in sci-fi fantasy because--as much as I'd love to see it--not everybody establishes within a few paragraphs what kind of world we're dealing with. You'd think that would be a no-brainer, but it isn't.

That said, I never skip multiple pages. Just skim for 3-4 paragraphs at a time. :) If I have to resort to skipping, I stop reading (Empress, by Karen Miller, is a good case in point -- How many times do you REALLY have to include the phrase, "I am Hekat, god-chosen and precious"?)
Victor Finch
55. Dea ex Machina
I skim sometimes, but I don't think it's usually as conscious as you're making it out to be here. It's more like... have you ever been watching a movie, and there's a long dull bit, and your attention starts drifting? Your eyes are on the screen, but your brain is only half paying attention, wandering to other things, until something happens on screen that snaps you out of it.

THAT'S usually what skimming is, for me. I'm not usually deliberately skipping bits, but because I'm bored, I'm reading quickly and not as carefully, until something nabs me and I'm paying attention again.
Ursula L
56. Ursula
I suppose that I skim, although I tend to see reading speed as a continuum, not a read/skim dichotomy.  

At the slowest, there is reading out loud.  There are also times when I'll read quite slowly, taking the time to pause to visualize a scene, or give the characters voices in my head.  Most of the time, when I read, it is at a faster pace than talking would be, and I absorb the text as text, rather than visualizing the story.  This can be leisurely or faster, depending on the nature of the text.  Exposition and description can go fast, dialog tends to be slower.  

I suspect that this goes back to how I learned to read.  I began, as we all do, learning/being taught letters and letter combinations, and the sounds they make.  Putting it together to sound-out words.  Then learning to recognize common words from familiarity.  Eventually, I reached the point where I just see text (in English) and "read" it automatically - I can't look at text and not have it resolve into words.  (Although I can still stop and sound out new or unfamiliar words on the rare occasions I find them.)  

My "skimming" tends to be my eyes skipping across the page as fast as my brain resolves the marks into meaning.  Which is very fast, and with no effort into thinking what the words sound like, or visualizing the action described.  It may only take a few seconds per paragraph.  People who don't read much think I can't be reading, as I'm turning the pages much faster then they imagine possible.


Jo, given the pure volume of reading you do, I suspect you have a skill similar to what people call "skimming" that you just think of as "reading fast" that you pull out without consciously deciding to when you get to things that may be less interesting, or when you're in a hurry to get to the end of a story (suspense about the end, but less interest in some of the things going on to get the story there.) 

You may not use this much for fiction, but perhaps when you have a form to read, or other things where you need to know what is said, but don't care about how it is said.  
58. Joanne
I tend to skim a lot on first readings if I am really interested in the plot and basically just can't wait to find out what happens next. If I liked the book I usually read it a second time soon after to appreciate the details.
I also tend to skip exessive landscape descriptions unless there is a good reason (plot-wise) to pay attention or the prose is very good.

By skimming I mean here the speed reading method of taking in half or whole sentences at once or quickly checking paragraphs for key words. This is a technique that anyone can learn with training.
I learnt it in a speed reading course (for non-fiction) by being forced to read a 200 page (romance)novel in about 3 hours using a metronome. Basically you try to read 1 line for every count of the metronome by taking in all words at once (or in two steps). At the end of the course we were up to about 120 counts/minute. As I finished the book I knew the plot but had very little knowledge of details.

Once I start skipping entire pages or paragraphs this usually means I have lost intrest and might as well stop reading.
Jo Walton
59. bluejo
Ursula: I certainly read very fast, and I certainly read by inhaling the text (see it, it is read) rather than examining all the letters, but I read every word and could recite it back. Also, I don't read freakishly fast. My husband reads faster than I do.

I also type really fast -- I broke an online "how fast do you type" program. My tested accurate typing is over 150 wpm and my normal inaccurate typing with mistakes is way higher, probably above 200 wpm. I'm saying this because I do not either type or read faster than I think.

You're right that I don't read aloud, or stop to visualise the action (unless I'm thinking "Huh? How could that work?" which is not a good sign) but I am reading all the words.

There are people right here in this thread who say they stop reading and start again when there's dialogue, or at a break. There are words in that book they are not reading at all. But they're not worried that they are missing anything. There are people saying they look at blocks of text for keywords. I definitely don't do that. I also see people saying they do this stuff with "lower quality" books -- I avoid those, which may be why I have never developed this skill.
Victor Finch
60. clm
I skim gripping books on a first reading because I'm really bad at putting a book down. I'm usually at least half way into the book at this point and it's getting late, or I need to do other things, but I really want to find out what's going to happen. If I skim for a couple of chapters, the next time I pick up the book I'll start from where I started skimming. If I skim to the end, I usually go back and read the skimmed sections over the next few days. Quite often I do a wierd thing where I'll fill them in backwards - ie I'll read the last couple of chapters fully, then I'll skip further back and read the few chapters before that and so on. I can't really explain why...

The other reason I skim has been mentioned a few times above - if there are several distinct threads and I'm only really interested in one or two. Then I skip to the next section or chapter until I find one in the right thread. Sometimes I'll re-read and fill in the rest; sometimes not.
61. boquaz
Once you really know an author, you can more or less guess what's going on much of the time, so you check to see if you're wrong by quickly scanning the page, and carefully reading the surprising parts.

Doesn't work with all authors, and I can't do this with bad books, or books I don't find interesting. If I really like an author, it's often easier (easiest for me is Brin, Cherryh and Jordan, because I've read and re-read some of their books so much). Satire (Pratchet, Adams), for me, is the worst to do this on. You don't want to miss the jokes.

I also enjoy non-fiction history, but can't do this there. I work as a scientist, I can definitely do this with scientific writing, but that's universally formulaic writing.
Sherwood Smith
62. Sartorias
I started skimming as a kid when I'd think, "I already know that." Then I'd skim at really boring bits, like in the Heinlein juvies when they went on and on about math, which was confusing to my dyslexic brain--and boring.

I like Alec Austin's "holographic" reading--you take in a graph in gulps. But I don't do it with all books. Some I read every word, and there are others I go back and reread intensively in order to tease out layers of meaning, because each reread rewards me with new perspective. (And there are some I reread just because I know exactly what's coming and love it. P.G. Wodehouse provides this experience.)
Victor Finch
63. Brian2
One of Elmore Leonard's rules of writing is to "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip." (This is best taken in context. The list is easy to find, but here's one place to see it: As linguists point out, books on formal grammar don't tell you not to use particular constructions unless people actually are using them; it's a good indicator of actual practice. Similarly, Leonard (and Steinbeck, who Leonard refers to when talking about the rules) are aware that readers do skim or skip when they feel the writer is getting a bit self-indulgent.
Victor Finch
64. FollowYourMuse
I am am guilty of skimming especially during info-dumps or backstory in a series when I don't need to be reminded what happened in a previous book. Sometimes there are romance or sex scenes or filler that are just not part of the story arc, those I tend to skim or speed read also.
I skim on re-reads, sections that I remember better, or details or world building that I no longer need to read.
C Smith
65. C12VT
When reading for pleasure, I almost never skim. There are two circustances in which I will -

- When I want to find out what happens but am bored (almost always a sign of bad writing, and I usually regret skimming, not because I missed stuff but because I wish I had just never wasted any time on that particular book).

- When I am in deep suspense and just have to know what hapens next, sometimes I find myself skimming ahead not because I want to skip parts but because I need to know what happens (this is usually a sign of good writing). When I catch myself doing this I stop, go back, and reread, because I really don't want to rush the book - I've just gotten overly excited.

Fortunately, I'm pretty good at selecting books that are worth reading and find myself doing the first type of skimming a lot less than the second type.

I can do the "holographic paragraph" thing but don't enjoy it. I've also found that, although I have good temporary recall of material I've skimmed, I have much less long-term retention of it.
C Smith
66. C12VT
@AlecAustin - I will also sometimes skip very painful scenes when rereading, but the dinner party in A Civil Campaign is actually one of my favorite scenes ever and I could never skip it. The scene in Illyan's office in Memory, however...
Steven Halter
67. stevenhalter
I normally read fiction in a fairly fast mode. In this mode I'm reading all the words and have time to also emotionally follow.
Then, I have a really fast mode similar to the sentence or paragraph scanning people have mentioned. For fiction, I usually don't go to this mode unless it's a fairly boring section as I find I don't get emotionally involved in the story. But, since it's a boring section there isn't much to get involved in. This is also the mode I read familiar technical books, so I definitely am reading the content--just in blocks.
Finally, if its both boring and repetitive I'll go into the skimming mode where I'm more skipping forward by pages. Actually, the final step is tossing the book aside if there aren't any interesting, non-repetitive parts.
Clark Tracy
68. claatra
Some writers believe they have to do a movie "slow motion" sequence in the middle of an otherwise good book. I'll skip it every time. Also, never-ending nature descriptions that break up the flow of the book. Oh, and battles. Seriously, screw battles. I went through all the agony of battles and military tactics in my college history program and I am never reading through another description of a battle again, ever. (I'm the same way with action sequences in movies. I just have a broken thrill gland.)

My way to skim through these dragging sequences is to thumb through the pages till I get to a paragraph break or the end of the chapter and read backward from there to find out if I missed anything in between, usually I haven't, and then move on. I try to avoid authors who are too much in love with descriptions and action because I know that I'm going to hate them by the time I finish their books.
F Shelley
69. FSS
I skim sometimes, but it's usually when an author (Robert Jordan comes to mind) spends a bit too much time laying out the setting or the clothes, or when the main characters are on a long journey (WoT or LOTR), but not a lot actually happens. Then I find myself touching on the first sentences of paragraphs and looking for quote marks to indicate dialouge.

And yes, this means that on occasion I'll be rereading a book for the nth time and come across something totally new.

I know it's not the best way to read for most, and shows off my impatience and (some would say) laziness, but I paid my $XX.XX, so back off :P
Victor Finch
70. M Verble
I usually skim in books I'm rereading with long technical explanations I've read once and don't relish reading again(Sorry Heinlein) or sections that thoroughly tick me off (aka young girl falls and twists her ankle, grrrrrr).
I have to agree if you're skimming on your first read it's probably not something to keep in your lifelong collection.
Dru O'Higgins
71. bellman
If the book starts to bore me, then yes. I hate to give up on a book once I've started it, so sometimes I'll skim to the end so I can tell myself I finished reading, and to see if my predictions about the ending are correct. The idea of skimming a book that I'm actually enjoying is bizarre.
Victor Finch
72. gailo
Yes, I skim. Most often it's descriptive passages or lengthy action scenes. I don't visualize very much as I read, so I find descriptions tedious. Occasionally I will skim if I'm reading something I'm not enjoying that much, but I'm close enough to the end that I figure I might as well finish it.
Victor Finch
73. PWade
I skimmed your article.

...what were you saying again...? :-)
Victor Finch
74. Kellyoyo
No, I never skim, ever. If it's not holding my attention I will give up on it.
Victor Finch
75. lampwick
I hardly ever skim. I read description because, well, sometimes description can be breathtakingly beautiful. (Okay, not often.) I do remember skimming once when I was reading a mystery and hated it but wanted to know how it ended -- but it was hard not being able to pause, and I didn't get a lot out of the book.

This discussion reminds me of Woody Allen saying he took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace -- "It's about Russia."
Joseph V.
76. onelowerlight
Skimming is one of the most useful skills that I learned in college. Holy cow, reading those dense political science articles cover to cover, sometimes five or six in a night...I wouldn't have a life, then or now.

But when it comes to fiction, I rarely skim in order to get past a "boring" sequence. If the book gets boring, I stop reading it. That might explain why I only finish maybe 3/4ths of what I start.

That said, if the suspense builds and the pace quickens, I'll find myself skimming just because I HAVE to know what happens. Usually when I do that, though, I'll skim a couple paragraphs to see what happens, then go back and reread it slowly to savor it.
Victor Finch
77. kluelos
I do skim, occasionally, but mostly for books that I feel I "ought" to read. (I'm past the age of "have to read".) So it's mostly books that I don't like for one reason or another but persist through anyway.

In fact, I believe that this is the only way anyone can read Ayn Rand and stay sane.

How I do it, is another matter. It's as if I set my eyes on a back shelf, or move them slightly out of focus but not. sort of letting words and phrases brush lightly over my mind on their way to the wastebin, until I reach a point where I'm not being lectured at anymore.

I also skim where I've already read a book, and I'm looking for a particular phrase or scene. There, I'm just gulping enough to know, "after this", or "before that" until I narrow it down. That works for references and texts too. I can do that with unread text if I know the subject, and I'm looking for what this author has to say about a particular point. I can see that he would not have got there yet, or must have previously covered it, so I can zero in on what I'm looking for.
Victor Finch
78. jonesjar
I do a lot of skimming where there are sex scenes. I look for any dialog that might be relevant to the story and skip the rest. I also skim some action scenes. I have to be more careful with those because there can be actions that I need to know for the story to make sense.
Invisible Cheese
79. MatOdin
I never skim, but then again, I read faster than most. If a book is not worth really reading, why read it? I just reread... multiple times.
Lironah Wulfe
80. Lironah
I skim when I re-read long books. If a book makes me want to skim on the first read, it usually goes back to the library unfinished.

The trick to skimming, in my opinion, is to catch the subject of the sentence, so you know when there's a change you might want to catch. You'll get enough of the words that way that you can usually figure out what's going on without losing time. The other important thing is to always read most of the actual dialogue, because this gives you the biggest clue as to what's going on. If there's dialogue, the action is mostly in the conversation anyway. An action scene is going to be marked by shorter paragraphs (with most good writers) which are much easier to speed read in the first plce.
81. maria
I must confess: I always skim when reading. Usually I tend to skip endless descriptions of landscape or Clothing. When reading such scenes I catch the keywords and the landscape beginns to unroll in my fantasy. Sometimes it can be a bit unnerving when this picture is suddenly disturbed by some bizarre bit of information the author presents (e.g. "where does this city come from in the middle of the waste???") but usually the mental pictures I draw come pretty close to the text itself.
Then again of course sometimes I miss something and have to scroll back in the text to collect the respective piece of information. However that can be quite cool sometimes. Has anybody read the Wheel of Time series? There is this scene in Tear when Berelain tries to seduce Rand and the gray man enters the scene. I have to admit I totally missed the sentence where it was described that a man with a dagger in his hand enters until Rand himself realises this. But since you are definitely not supposed to realise gray men this was actually quite cool.
But I have to admit that I tend to reread books I like again and again. The first time I read a book I don' t need to read every sentence. I just want to know if I like the style, the language and the story. I want to get a general feeling for the book. If I don't like the book I still can't put it away (I always want to know the ending) but the ordeal of reading it doesn't take so long. If I however do like the book, I will read it more slowly the next time and marvel at the secrets I missed the first time.

And how to skim? Let me try to explain this with your article.
It took me about 30 seconds to get from top to bottom and deciding if it was interesting. During this I read the first to sentences as a whole and picked sentences with keywords.
It was interesting and so I reread it, this time a little bit more slowly and made mental captions for each passage. The passages now that seemed most interesting to me I read again and skipped other parts. The whole process took me about 4 minutes which is an acceptable length of time considering that English isn't my native language. (Guessed that by now, have you?) But I think I got everything out of the article. In fact I just reread the whole text without skimming (not that easy for me - as I said: I always skim) and I am pretty certain that I didn't miss anything the first time. ;-) And please don't be offended! I really liked your article but ... I always skim
Molly 314
82. mollie
I skip completely any poetry at the beginning of chapters, plus songs or poetry the characters burst into during the text. They're usually off-set in italics which make it easy to skip. If chapters start with dream sequences I usually skip those too. I know they're imbued with important foreshadowing and mood and whatnot, but it's such a lazy writing technique I can't stand it and my eyes glaze over. Then I tend to skim through long landscape scene descriptions or battle scenes if they don't hold my interest.
Joan Mitchell
83. dragoness
At one time, I'd have given a definitive no to the question of skimming.; I used to think I always had to finish what I started... but yes, I've been known to skim in more recent years. The thing is this: I skim if I'm tempted to put the book down and not pick it up again.

I say to myself, well, what if it gets better again later. I don't want to miss the good parts, do I? Like the little kid who never wants to go to sleep, afraid he'll miss out on something good, I skim the remainder of a book I'm tempted to stop reading. The most recent example I can think of:

Secrets of Eden: A Novel
Chris Bohjalian
Shaye Areheart Books (2010)

I started to read this book normally... the first four chapters bored me almost to tears... so I just about put the book down for good. After an hour or so, I decided to see if it got better later in the story. I skimmed a bit of the middle, but mostly just skipped forward to the last four chapters, by which time, whatever had bored me was over and done with. The last four chapters or so are the best part of Secrets of Eden. However, they were not good enough to get me to read anything else this author produces... This skipping and skimming resulted in my having read about half the book.
Victor Finch
84. Catlady
Fiddler and Jaspax and a few others seem to me to describe the sort of skimming I occasionally do. I especially am likely to want to skim descriptions of people and places; if those descriptions are more than a short sentence long, I feel guilty not reading them and doing the work to construct the scene in my mind. Vision is not my dominant sense, so it *is* work for me.

I remember reading Tanith Lee's Birthgrave. The title intrigued me and I really wanted to read it. She put in long descriptions every page or two, and I forced myself to read them. I was reading as if it were a mystery novel, where hidden in the descriptions would be hints to what was going on -- and it was terribly frustrating, because there were no such hints. She put in long descriptions of, say, a cliff and a waterfall in ways that made me think there was something very important about them -- and then a page or two later the characters moved away from that waterfall and it was never mentioned again. Ugh.

I hasten to say that in other books I've read by Tanith Lee she gave up those laboured descriptions, thank heavens. I wonder if she put them in in the first place because she thought she *should* and not because she enjoyed writing them.

I have a couple of metaphors for skimming which other commenters don't mention that might (or might not) help. (Well, I haven't read all the comments yet.) One metaphor is the fast-forward on a VCR/DVD/TiVo, where you see every third or tenth or whatever frame -- those glimpses are enough for me to see if there's likely to be something interesting enough to go back and watch it through.

The other metaphor (except that it's not really a metaphor) is that normally I vocalize the words I read in my mind. I do this faster than I could speak them, but it's still a lot slower than speed-reading. If I read only with my eyes and don't sub-vocalize, it's a form of skimming. I can do this a little with French sentences -- I read the words I sort of know without trying to translate them and maybe get a bit of sense of what's being said -- but since I don't know French well, it's neither all that easy nor very effective.

As a sidebar, it's interesting how many commenters say they skim sex and action scenes -- precisely the scenes that movie producers put in deliberately to attract attention (not my attention usually, but they apparently expect to attract someone's attention -- teenage boys?)
85. Freelancer
sps49 @36

Yes indeed, if reading about caste structure and geopolitical heirarchies isn't your cup of tea, then John Norman isn't your favorite author. I read the first three Gor books at a ridiculously young age (my Dad left books lying around all the time, and I read what I saw), before I realized how disturbing they were.
Victor Finch
86. AriadneArca
I basically do the, haha, "holographic" mode all the time, and it actually increases a book's value, most of the time. I speed-read most of the way through a first read-through, and skim through the descriptive scenes, because like others have said above, I just want to know what happens next.

After the first read through, I'll read it again if it's a good book, and again if it's a REALLY good book, each time picking up small details that I didn't notice on the previous readthrough. It's a system that works very well for me
Sébastien Chaillous
87. Demiandre
I do skim, mostly on re-read. When something annoying is ahead, I know I'm going to drop attention. So I skip the boring passage and go to where action is waiting for me to read.

On the first read, I tend to skip the too-long descriptions, and some narration. Or skim because I want to know what happens next, and can't help reach it as fast as I can.

So I'm skimming on first read, skipping on second and later re-read.
Helen Cousins
88. naath.sedai
I never skim the first time I read something I chose to read, although I do on re-reads sometimes if I especially want to read a specific part. Gazing lovingly on every word doesn't always make them make sense to me (I'm especially bad with poetry), but I do make sure to read all the words anyway.
David Dyer-Bennet
89. dd-b
I distinguish "skimming" from "speedreading". But I can't speedread except by the most intense concentration, so I hardly ever do it (and never because of boredom; that's not when I can generate intense concentration!).

I don't skim on first-reading; I quit.

I skim to find when I'm past something if I'm searching for something later, or if I'm skipping something. I do skip things on re-reads in some books; especially on 50th rereads.
Victor Finch
90. LizardBreath
I skim all the time, for the same 'getting past dull descriptive bits' reason a couple of people noted above. It's not purposeful -- I don't decide I'm going to skim ahead, I just get bored and start reading faster and less attentively until something pulls me back in. The more interested I am in the book, the less I skim.

One funny result is that while I'll almost never intentionally stop reading a book in the middle, if I've picked up something dull enough I will occasionally find myself having turned the last page and 'finished' the book without having actually read it; I'll have started skimming, and gone faster and faster until the book's gone without having recaptured my attention.
Victor Finch
91. Lola Raincoat
This isn't quite in response to your question, Jo, but: Sometimes skimming has an important purpose. As a historian, I write books and articles that are designed to be skimmed by some readers, while read carefully and absorbed fully by others, and I train history students how to skim properly - as I was trained.

For example, I sometimes tell graduate students to go out and read, say, seven or eight books on the policies of Lazaro Cardenas as they played out in a single Mexican state between 1934 and 1940, and I allow them a week to do it in. That's not because I want them to absorb all the information in every book about (say) the distribution of corn-grinding mills, or anti-alcohol campaigns - they only need to read one of those books to get more than enough of that kind of detail. It's because I want them to be able to understand the argument among historians about Cardenista social policy, and to talk about it sensibly in class.

By the time a student has arrived in grad school, they're usually quite good at reading thoroughly and appalled to discover that they're meant to skim, which I guess you might find reassuring - there are a lot of diligent, word-by-word readers out there!

And for me, this is the opposite of reading for pleasure; this is reading as professional obligation. I turn to fiction and poetry with relief, allowing myself to attend to every punctuation mark. But I have to consciously ignore my professional-reading training in order to do that, now.
Erin Hartshorn
92. ErinMH
I don't skim. I've been tempted to, once or twice (such as when I got to the bit about how the city was set up in Anathem), and I decided that if I was so bored I wanted to skip whole chunks of what the writer had put in front of me, I was much better served putting that book down and finding another. If I'm reading a book, I read it.
Jo Walton
93. bluejo
LolaRaincoat: I quite understand that with non fiction -- I'll sort of do that myself if I'm reading a book for that reason. What I don't get, even after all these comments, is the point of doing it with fiction intended as pleasure reading.
Stephanie Leary
94. sleary
I read pretty closely, at least the first time through. I know I'm starting to get bored with a book when I'm tempted to skim.

Rereading is another matter. With some books, I go through it just as carefully the second, third, and tenth time, and I find new facets each time. With others, I'll cheerfully skim the parts I know are boring or off-putting. (For example, in a Tad Williams fantasy, I know to stop reading when the protagonist enters an underground labyrinth of some sort and skip ahead to where he comes up again.)
Victor Finch
95. CaitieCat
I'm a re-read skimmer, mostly; if I'm re-reading something I know well - and I re-read a LOT - and I know there are parts I don't enjoy, I'll skip them. Like, I've never enjoyed the Bombadil sequence in FOTR/LOTR, so after they leave Buckland I follow them through the Old Forest for a bit, and then skip ahead to the barrow-wights. And the Council of Elrond - I've not read the long historical bits of that since about the second or third time I read the book, thirty-odd years ago. But get me into Moria, and I'm reading and re-reading every word.

Academically, skimming was crucial, as noted above here; doing Lit courses for two languages meant just a big ol' bucket of thick lit crit tomes each week. And it's kind of axiomatic that for most academic lit critics, they're about an order of magnitude less interesting than the books they're criticizing (yes, there are exceptions).

I won't necessarily reject a book because it has me skimming a bit. Usually it's the subject matter at hand, rather than the book, which is the cause of my lighter touch on the page: as many above, I don't usually bother with sex scenes, and fight scenes are usually more interesting to me for the outcomes than the blow-by-blow, particularly as I have just enough knowledge to often be able to see where the author doesn't, which is a strong incentive to skip past the bit that the author is clueless about, rather than be drawn into a long sneering decline of my interest in the author's work.

Tl;dr version: contextually, yes.
Dave Bell
96. DaveBell
There have been times when I have, as it were, skipped lightly over the surface of a story, as if I were a skillfully flung pebble on the surface of a lake. And it's usually because I recognise the original story, whether it's Rorke's Drift (as depicted in Zulu!), Seven Samurai, or Enemy Coast Ahead, and the author isn't really doing anything. Patrick O'Brian takes plenty of real events, but they are part of the story, not some interlude inserted as padding.
Victor Finch
97. HelenS
I think it's hilarious how many people skip sex scenes. (No one has yet admitted to skipping the boring discussion of neutron stars to get back to the sexy bits.) So why ARE they in the books again?

Me, I'm in the camp that reads so fast that a first reading almost IS a skim -- as C.S. Lewis said, a book's no good to me until I've read it more than once. And I will admit to skipping the battles in the Aubrey/Maturin series (though sometimes I read them just because, well, it's more O'Brian, in the same way I'll read less favorite works by favorite authors because it's More of So-and-so that I haven't read to death already).

I totally agree about the necessity of skimming for reading textbooks, reference books, etc. I was shocked when my daughter, then in middle school, had to re-read most of a chapter in a science text to find the answer to a question at the end, and start over if she forgot to keep looking for the answer. But I couldn't explain how I could find the answer in thirty seconds, either.
Victor Finch
98. Tiger Spot
I skipped the sex scenes in Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear sequels when I read them (around ages 12-14). The first one or two are useful plot-wise; after that they're awfully repetitive. (Except for the one that gets interrupted by the pet wolf; I'd skim the sex scenes around that part of that book more carefully to make sure I didn't miss the funny bit.) I could see doing that to another book that had similarly clearly delineated Useless Boring Scenes. (Actually, reading mollie's comment reminded me that I do often skim clearly delineated Useless Boring Poems when they appear. Not all poems are boring or useless, but in the texts where they are, they are certainly easy to spot!)

Occasionally, if I've started reading a short story I'm not enjoying, I will skim it to find out the answer to whatever question I have ("I bet so-and-so marries what's-her-face... yep." "Do they ever get home? ... No." "Is this story as sexist as it looks? ... Argh!") without having to suffer through it. If I've done that to a story, I don't feel as though I've read it, but I'm perfectly happy to talk (well, complain, usually) about it. I don't do that with novels.

Sometimes if I'm particularly into a fast-paced book, especially something with a lot of action, I'll realize I missed something and have to go back a few paragraphs to read more carefully, but that's a different thing entirely.
Victor Finch
99. pangolin2
I definitely skim. Here are things I often skim:

1) Monologues; manifestos; fugue states. A secondary character wants to spend two pages explaining their philosophy or politics? Why? Is this because you, the author, have A Point To Make, or because it develops the character? I probably got the main character-building drift within a paragraph. (This happens a lot in Robertson Davies.) I'll skip to the end-quote and read the last line or two; if they don't make any sense I might presume I missed something important, turn back and read the whole thing. Ditto for a character who's drugged, or manic, or whatever, whose disordered fugue thoughts are laid out over several pages.

2) Data dumps in hard SF. Character A needs to explain DNA to character B. Character C is speaking to a group of investors about warp-drive technology. If it doesn't hold my interest on a sentence-by-sentence level, I'm not going to stick with it for fear of missing some vital plot point.

3) Rhapsodic descriptions of locations or music. Again, if the writing holds my attention, it holds my attention---Tom Wolfe or George Eliot can rhapsodize about kitty litter, I'll read it. If not, I often don't get much out of it; if it's not a whodunit, it's unlikely to matter to the plot; and it's easy to skim ahead.

4) Literary fireworks. I'm perfectly happy reading current fiction in which the author wants to experiment with styles and voices. It's not uncommon for some experiment to last for a page or two, with some easily-scanned typographical detail marking the divisions. Not all of these experiments work for me---or, not all of them work for me at any given time---and I'm happy to say, "OK author, you've very clever and I appreciate the effort, but right now I don't have the energy to follow this highly-abstracted and punctuation-free conversation."
Victor Finch
100. sylvia_rachel

Or not in fiction. If I'm that bored by a book, I just put it down and don't pick it up again. (When I was younger, I used to feel guilty about doing that, and would plough on to the end of books of which these days I might not even get through the first chapter. I don't remember that I ever found this a particularly rewarding approach.) I do sometimes do it in other reading contexts -- for example, there are some blogs I read where I've learnt to skim over comments by certain people, for various reasons. But not when I'm reading a book.

I do do that thing you describe when re-reading, though. Sometimes. I often skip the dinner-party scene in A Civil Campaign, for example, because it makes me squirm even though I adore the rest of the book. But mostly if I'm going to do that on a re-read, I just set out to re-read only certain bits ... and then, more often than not, get sucked into re-reading the whole book after all.
Victor Finch
101. houseboatonstyx
I skim a lot, especially when re-reading. For instance, sometimes I'm in the mood to dig into the detection, other times I'm just skimming for Peter and Harriet and quote marks.

Long descriptive passages are beautifully skimmable, particularly in L.M. Montgomery. Just as in real life, landscape is skimmable. You don't have to distinguish every tree, even if the author does. You can just relax and sweep your eyes across the whole panorama and take in the (undescribed) smell.
Victor Finch
102. houseboatonstyx
"And yes, this means that on occasion I'll be rereading a book for the nth time and come across something totally new."

An excellent reason!
Lydia Nickerson
103. lydy
I don't skim. Partly this is because I can't. Which was a problem when I was in school. I do sometimes read with inattention, because I've gotten bored. But I tend to go back and reread the bits that I wasn't reading thoroughly before.

The thing I don't get about skimming fiction is that it messes up the pace of revelation, which is one of the things I find most valuable in fiction. I also don't get reading the ending first, or any of the other things that mess with the proper order of things. I find that the emotional and intellectual impact of the work is highly dependent upon context.
Victor Finch
104. Yorkshire Gold
Never, never, never! Those words are there for a reason! If you want to skip something, skip commercials with your Tivo!
Nancy Lebovitz
105. NancyLebovitz
I'm the friend mentioned in the article, and the author I especially skim is Laurel Hamilton. Not only that, but I'm hardly the only person I've heard of who skips the sex scenes. I even saw a list once of what to read in a Hamilton (sorry, I don't remember which one) if you wanted to only read the mystery parts.

I'm also known to skip action scenes. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever skimmed description. It's interesting that no one's mentiioned skimming dialogue.

Jo, did you read the stream of consciousness bits in I Will Fear No Evil? Did they contribute to the book?
Victor Finch
106. KevinMarks
I'm with Jo on this one - why would you skim something your're reading for pleasure? I do skim long blog comment threads like this one, or those at Charlie Stross's or Making Light by looking for people I recognise (put faces by comments, please), but not novels.

A couple of people said that they got his habit through taking literature in college - that rings true, as I remember talking about authors with my friends reading English Lit (I was reading Natural Sciences), and realising that I had read more of some of the authors than they had, as the breakneck speed they were expected to get through works in term time meant that they read summaries and skimmed for contextual quotes for essays instead of fully reading the books.
S. L. Casteel
107. castiron
On a first read, I don't skim. If I find myself skimming a book on first read, that means it's not grabbing my interest, and I set it aside.

On a reread, I might skim or skip to get to a part I like, though usually if it's a book I enjoy enough to reread, it's a book that I want to read all of.

I do read the sex scenes. If I skim them, it means they're badly written or that they're not carrying their plot or characterization weight. I'll skim graphic gore and extreme violence, though; even if they're well-written, I don't want them in my head.
Nancy Lebovitz
108. NancyLebovitz
I forgot to mention that I really appreciate this thread for the discussion of different reading styles-- I had no idea there was so much variation.
Jo Walton
109. bluejo
Nancy: Yes, I did, and yes, they did.

I had no idea there was so much variation either! I always thought when people were reading fiction for pleasure they read all the words.
Victor Finch
110. Padme of Hidden Lake
It depends on why I'm reading the book. I was also a Lit Major (French Lit at that!) so having to read 400 - 600 pages in my second language every 2 days in college meant a lot of skimming to get through it all and have a basic framework to discuss (I also got really good at writing down my thoughts in the margins at breakneck speed at the same time!) If I was actually enjoying the book I would go back on the weekend and re-read that week's readings (so long as I wasn't swamped with work for my education classes - double major) or I would bring them to camp in the summer and reread them at a leisurely pace then - with the benefit of a better understanding from class! Now I teach Special Education so all my students have comprehension difficulties. When I get a book report from one of them on a book I have not read I will get it out of the school library and skim it to grade the report (after all how can I know if they understood a book unless I know it too - or how to help them if they didn't). There have been a few occasions where I have become intrigued by the book or my student's report enough to hang on to it and read it properly after all the grading is done. But if I pick a book just for fun for me I don't skim unless I get excited and really impatient about something to come, but then I go back and reread at a more leisurely pace after I make sure everything is ok.
Victor Finch
111. AmandaF
I'm reading one series where I disagree strongly with the author about how to write. I find the premise compelling and must know what happens in the end, but I really wish someone could rewrite the whole series to put the plot in better clothes!

(Main problem: if you're trying really hard to "show, don't tell", but think this means that your character should have long, slow expository reflections in the heat of battle, please for the love of god adopt a Dickensian omniscient third person and spare us the trouble. It would read so much better in omniscient third, provided the narrative voice were amusing enough.)

So this would fall under the category of books others wouldn't finish. Sometimes the implausible thoughts and conversations of the characters are painful to read. So yes, this is actually a case where I will skim dialogue! :)

Oh - and no, I didn't skim the comments. I think I spent over an hour reading them all. They were interesting!
Stef Maruch
112. firecat
With some fiction, I get into a state where I forget I'm reading a book and I just have a story unfolding in my head. I tend to gloss over some of the words when I do that.

This works OK for books that have relatively simple plots and language, and as far as pleasure is concerned, it's kind of soothing.

It doesn't work for the kinds of books you mentioned, where the plot or language is complex or there's a lot of important detail in the descriptions. For those books I need to consciously keep myself into a state of reading every word. I get a lot more out of this kind of reading; it's a deeper form of pleasure; but it's also more effort.
Victor Finch
113. anotheralias
I skim, am an inveterate lifelong skimmer, and I feel no guilt at all. I don´t understand why people would feel guilty of skimming something they are reading for pleasure. You are breaking no contract, you are not obliged to read EVERY word in print. If you are writing a review, or giving an opinion on something you skimmed, then of course feel guilty if you have not gave it all your attention. But otherwise why?

My academic reading was all very technical and hard sciences, skipping ( except introductions was stuff like that) was not particularly helpful except maybe to identify what passage in one page was what I was looking for in reference to something. But otherwise I think skipping has always been helpful to me, instead of getting stuck in a passage or chapter, it helped me move along, it helped to more adventurous when picking different genres or reading in foreign (like english, but that must be obvious ;) ) languages. I was reading very along and old books when I was a kid, without feeling I was anyhow cheating if I did not read everyword.

My method of skimming is much as described above. I do not *skip* pages or even paragraphs, I just absorb some words from the paragraph instead of reading it word for word and move along. I do that a LOT as well online, with my blog feeds, with newspaper articles and interviews, when a blog post has hundreds of comments ( nudge nudge). With fiction novels, what I skip most is action scenes ( just tell me who dies and how they get out of the prison or whatever) particularly battle scenes, and repetitive sex scenes ( not usually the first one between two characters because that is usually revealing about their characters and relationship. But if it´s A and B just trying a different position, get a room and close the door). I never skip dialogue. I am pretty fast and paranoid at picking hidden plot hints, I think it is very rare that my radar does not work I lose any hints on character personality or plot ( though maybe about mechanics of how a battle be fought or how they will escape from dreaded peril something, though those things do not interest me, I am much mroe interested in what people do and say to othes). Exceptions are authors like Dunnett or Megan Whalen Turner which hide plots very very well and it is impossible to pick them at first read.

PS - my first blog post. First assuming I can get the word verification right. Your word verification is totally fiendish!
Joe Romano
114. Drunes
@anotheralias (113): Your first paragraph perfectly answers the question of why those of us who skim don't feel guilty about it. Thanks!
Joseph Lewis Szabo III
115. pointman74250
I usually don't skim when it comes to reading fiction. Nonfiction is a different matter.

If the fiction is boring I just keeping going until something interesting comes along but I don't skim. Nonfiction maybe and usually only online because my natural reading position is laying down - I feel more comfortable that way. Looking at a computer screen sitting up just gets in the way of my reading for some reason. That is when I skim but only sometimes and only nonfiction.
Victor Finch
117. Gerd D.
"Do you ever skim?"
"Every time I read a blog entry..."

But seriously, the answer is yes and if I do it's often a sign that I may not read the book to the bitter end, but surely one that I won't ever pick up another book by that author.
Victor Finch
118. Blixa
Yes, I skim, and you're right that I probably miss characterization that takes place during action or sex scenes. Sometimes if I realize I'm missing something I go back and re-read parts. I feel I read poorly for comprehension, though.

When I read "normally", that is, without being conscious that I'm skimming something boring, I don't read every word. I only go back and do that if I realize I'm not understanding. I assumed everybody reads that way but now I'm not so sure.
Victor Finch
119. Sovay
I do not skim. I can't look at text without reading it and I read in paragraphs; it would be unnecessary. I spent most of elementary school (and middle school, and high school, and college) convincing people that I could, in fact, repeat back to them whatever had happened on a page I had just glanced at.
Brian NOrthcutt
120. bnorthcutt
I'll admit it.. I'm an unrepentant skimmer and always have been. Even with books I enjoy. It has two advantages. First, I can get to the climax that much faster. Second, when I re-read a book, I always find something I skimmed over the first time and it makes the book as intellectually satisfying as before.

Thankfully, it's not like wolfing down a sweet and barfing it back up to go over the good parts again.
Victor Finch
121. Jam24
Do I skim?

Yeah. Sometimes, books are predictable, to the point that you're not really missing anything when you decide to skip ahead. And it's also a matter of preference. For example, I don't like battle scenes, but I do like dialogue, so I just skip the battle scenes and move on to a part I like. This behavior of mine is especially prevalent when I read space operas. Characters blather on too much about weapons, to the point that it turns into jargon which just goes over my head.

And besides, I think a good book, if it's "really" good, would leave enough, or just a hint of foreshadowing to give you a heads-up that something interesting is going to happen in the next few pages, in which case, of course I wouldn't skip. But if you know matters are going to continue on being boring, well, it's okay to forge on ahead.

In addition, skimming doesn't really let you miss much because if a certain plot device in the story is truly interesting (and important) it will turn up again in the succeeding pages. However, if it's not said outright, then deriving or guessing what's happening just by the context of certain paragraphs is more than to understand what's going on in the story.
Victor Finch
124. Felis-Sidus
I don't skim, exactly. If I'm finding a passage truly slow going, I may skim ahead a couple of pages to get an idea where all this is heading, to put the passage in more complete context. But then I always come back and continue from the point of demarcation.

I don't skim for several reasons. Probably the strongest is that whatever I may think, the author put those words there for a reason. Something that seems meaningless now may turn out to be a key point later. If I've skimmed, I'll miss the point later, and diminish my own experience of the work.

One reason I read is to enjoy an author's use of language. It's entirely possible for an author to write a passage that seems to me to add nothing to the story, but to write it so beautifully that I wouldn't want to miss the music of the words or the feel of the language in my mind.

Finally, when I read a book, it seems to me to be a sort of collaboration between the author and me. To skip a passage would be a kind of shirking of my part in the process.
Victor Finch
125. wind-up bird
The only reason I skim when reading novels for pleasure is awkward scenes, or scenes where someone gets caught doing something they shouldn't, because I can't stand them. I've done it since I was a little kid (one who was always terrified of getting in trouble). I get so uncomfortable reading them that it's either skip the scene or stop reading. I absolutely hate it when important plot points end up in those scenes, because then I have to go back and skim them a little better.

It probably just makes it worse that I mostly read young adult novels, where those scenes are a common theme.

Other than that, if I'm reading for pleasure, I read every word. I love it when an author is good at playing with language (Terry Pratchett comes to mind, and Neil Gaiman), so I wouldn't want to miss a word!

I've skimmed things for classes sometimes, though I'm not very good at it. My reading speed of about 20 textbook (or boring/difficult novel) pages/hour simply didn't cut it for college, and I'm terrified of how it'll turn out in grad school.

I skimmed these comments, because I was mostly curious to see if any other commenters have my skimming habits. I wouldn't want to be redundant, but I also don't want to spend the hours it would take to read every single tiny variation on the skimming theme people have posted.

And I'll skim if I'm reading a story by a friend because I feel obligated to read it, but it's not really my thing or it's dragging on too long.

I'll skim over sex scenes sometimes, if they're exceptionally drawn out or excessively emotional.
Scott Jones
126. scttjones231
I skim usually on reading assignments because they are too boring... but when i read romantic novels I do not skim at all...

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