After all, we all learned how to read fairly early in life, usually in elementary school, right?
But do you know how to really read?
More importantly, are you really reading?
What we’re talking about here is what you say, rather than how you say it.
If you haven’t noticed, competition in the world of online content is fierce. Anyone playing to win is searching high and low for information that others don’t have, which for many means subscribing to a ridiculous number of sites.
While seeking out novel information from a wide variety of sources is admirable, it doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage. The ancient Greeks had a label for those who were widely read but not well read — they called them sophomores.
As in sophomoric … not a second-year college student. (I suppose there’s not really much of a distinction.)
Scanners and pleasure seekers
We know that people don’t read well online.
They ruthlessly scan for interesting chunks of information rather than digesting the whole, and they want to be entertained in the process.
But that doesn’t mean you should read that way.
If you’ve been publishing online for even a small amount of time, you’ve seen someone leave a comment that clearly demonstrates they didn’t read or understand your content. It’s even more painful when someone writes a responsive post that clearly misses the entire point of the original article.
While it happens to all of us from time to time, you don’t want to consistently be one of these people.
Credibility is hard enough to establish without routinely demonstrating that you fail to grasp a topic you’ve chosen to write about, whether in an article or a comment.
Plus, if you’re doing nothing but scanning hundreds of headlines and reading purely to be entertained, you’re at a disadvantage. Someone in your niche or industry is likely reading books and reading deeper to become a higher authority.
Or they will after they read this article.
Information vs. understanding
People often think of learning as an information-gathering and retention process. But being able to recall and regurgitate information is low-level learning compared with insightful understanding.
We’ve all come across bloggers who are big on regurgitation. These cut-and-paste creatives add value to the world through a mash-up of sources, right? Maybe.
But without the ability to understand and communicate what it all means for the reader, you’re simply passing on your reading obligations to others, and that’s not giving people what they look for in a publication.
On the other hand, if you understand everything you read upon a casual once over, are you truly learning anything new?
The material that gives you an edge in the insight department is the stuff that’s harder to understand. In other words, the writer is your superior when it comes to that particular subject matter, and it’s your job to close the expertise gap by reading well.
You do that by moving beyond learning by instruction, and increasing your true understanding by discovery.
For example, you read a challenging book full of great information, and you understand enough of it to know that you don’t understand all of it.
At that point, you can dive into the book again and read more carefully. You can go to supplemental resources. You can read other books. All that matters is you do the work rather than asking someone, and I guarantee you’re really learning in the process.
So, next time you read a challenging blog post and you’re not clear on a point, your first inclination might be to ask a question in the comments. Instead, read the post again.
If it’s still not clear, go do some research on your own to see if you can figure it out. Then when you finally do ask a question, you’re on an entirely different level of understanding and can likely engage in a meaningful dialogue with the author.
Instruction is important and beneficial. But true understanding comes from your own exploration and discovery along the path.
(By the way, if you’re enjoying this post, you might also like the article What Is Writer’s Block?)
The four levels of reading
Back in 1940, a guy named Mortimer J. Adler jolted the “widely read” into realizing they might not be well read with a book called How to Read a Book.
Updated in 1972 and still relevant today, How to Read a Book identifies four levels of reading:
Each of these reading levels is cumulative. You can’t progress to a higher level without mastering the levels that come before.
1. Elementary reading
Aptly named, elementary reading consists of remedial literacy, and it’s usually achieved during the elementary schooling years.
Sadly, many high schools and colleges must offer remedial reading courses to ensure that elementary reading levels are maintained, but very little instruction in advanced reading is offered.
2. Inspectional reading
Scanning and superficial reading are not evil, as long as approached as an active process that serves an appropriate purpose.
Inspectional reading means giving a piece of writing a quick yet meaningful advance review in order to evaluate the merits of a deeper reading experience.
There are two types:
This is the equivalent of scanning a blog post to see if you want to read it carefully.
You’re checking the title, the subheads, and you’re selectively dipping in and out of content to gauge interest.
The same can be done with a book — go beyond the dust jacket and peruse the table of contents and each chapter, but give yourself a set amount of time to do it.
Superficial reading is just that … you simply read.
You don’t ponder, and you don’t stop to look things up. If you don’t get something, you don’t worry about it. You’re basically priming yourself to read again at a higher level if the subject matter is worthy.
Stopping at inspectional reading is only appropriate if you find no use for the material. Unfortunately, this is all the reading some people do in preparation for their own writing.
3. Analytical reading
At this level of reading, you’ve moved beyond superficial reading and mere information absorption. You’re now engaging your critical mind to dig down into the meaning and motivation beyond the text.
To get a true understanding of a book, you would:
- Identify and classify the subject matter as a whole
- Divide it into main parts and outline those parts
- Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve
- Understand the author’s terms and key words
- Grasp the author’s important propositions
- Know the author’s arguments
- Determine whether the author solves the intended problems
- Show where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete
You’ll note that the inspectional reading you did perfectly sets the stage for an analytical reading. But so far, we’re talking about reading one book.
The highest level of reading allows you to synthesize knowledge from a comparative reading of several books about the same subject.
4. Syntopical reading
It’s been said that anyone can read five books on a topic and be an expert. That may be true, but how you read those five books will make all the difference.
If you read those five books analytically, you will become an expert on what five authors have said. If you read five books syntopically, you will develop your own unique perspective and expertise in the field.
In other words, syntopical reading is not about the existing experts. It’s about you and the problems you’re trying to solve, in this case for your own readers.
In this sense, the books you read are simply tools that allow you to form an understanding that’s never quite existed before. You’ve melded the information in those books with your own life experience and other knowledge to make novel connections and new insights.
You, my friend, are now an expert in your own right.
Here are the five steps to syntopical reading:
Inspectional reading is critical to syntopical reading.
You must quickly identify which five (or 15) books you need to read from a sea of unworthy titles. Then you must also quickly identify the relevant parts and passages that satisfy your unique focus.
In analytical reading, you identify the author’s chosen language by spotting the author’s terms of art and key words.
This time, you assimilate the language of each author into the terms of art and key words that you choose, whether by agreeing with the language of one author or devising your own terminology.
This time, the focus is on what questions you want answered (problems solved), as opposed to the problems each author wants to solve.
This may require that you draw inferences if any particular author does not directly address one of your questions. If any one author fails to address any of your questions, you messed up at the inspection stage.
When you ask a good question, you’ve identified an issue.
When experts have differing or contradictory responses to the same question, you’re able to flesh out all sides of an issue, based on the existing literature.
When you understand multiple perspectives within an individual issue, you can intelligently discuss the issue, and come to your own conclusion (which may differ from everyone else, thereby expanding the issue and hopefully adding unique value).
Determining the “truth” via syntopical reading is not really the point, since disagreements about truth abound with just about any topic.
The value is found within the discussion among competing view points concerning the same root information, and you’re now conversant enough to hold your own in a discussion of experts.
This is what the “online conversation” was supposed to look like according to early bloggers, and sometimes, it does.
But mostly, online conversation looks like the unqualified, unsubstantiated opinions of the ill-informed, and you’re not looking to be part of that scene.
Be a demanding reader for the win
Reading, at its fundamental essence, is not about absorbing information. It’s about asking questions, looking for answers, understanding the various answers, and deciding for yourself.
Think of reading this way, and you quickly realize how this allows you to deliver unique value to your readers as a publisher.
If you think all of this sounds like a lot of work, well … you’re right. And most people won’t do it, just like most people will never write their own content in the first place.
That’s why your readers need you and your blog post ideas.
They need you to do the work for them, because they don’t want to become an expert. So, it’s your job to understand the complex and grasp the essentials, then make it simple, easy to read, and entertaining.
You’re on it, right?