Three Modes of Reading

I write a lot about writing — about taking your ideas and shaping them into written content so they impact others. But there’s no writing without reading. Reading enables you to generate new ideas, evolve, and better understand the world and your audience. Reading provides invaluable input you can process and use in your life and writing. 

Like writing, reading can be done in many ways, and not all of them share the same benefits. Reading can be shallow or profound; it can be reactive or proactive; reading can be done on autopilot mode or be used as a generative activity. 

In this issue, we’ll explore three kinds of reading. Spoiler alert: you should aim for one of them. 

Read and Respond

The basic and least effective kind of reading is reading with the sole intention of responding. 

The first example that comes to mind is how we typically read our Social Media feeds. We basically scroll and occasionally stop to read something more attentively, but for the most part, we read, respond, and move on. A response in this context does not necessarily mean writing a comment or even “liking” a post. A response can be internal: we instantly decide whether what we’ve read is true or false, makes sense or nonsense. Sometimes we express what we think in writing back (or re-sharing), and often we just tag the content in our minds and move on to the next item on our feed. 

But the Read and Response mode is not limited to Social Media. You can read a whole book and have this relatively shallow dialog with the text in your head: I either agree or disagree (or just indifferent); let’s move on. 

Read and Respond seems better than just reading without having any dialog with the text. It looks like an act of processing, but it is a very shallow one, if only because it usually doesn’t take much to form an initial opinion about the ideas conveyed in the text. With this reading mode, we don’t need to slow down and re-process the ideas we consume. 

Read and Store

Sometimes we read because we acknowledge the potential of the text. We are not driven by an urge to respond, but we sense that what we read could be helpful. At the same time, we don’t intend to do something active with the ideas at the moment, and we don’t invest even in deeply processing them. Instead, we tag them as “could be relevant, someday, in some context” and store them in our minds for future reference. 

Read and Store seems more effective than reading to respond. We might really return to some of the ideas we’ve read in the past and make use of them. The challenge lies in the delay between reading and using the ideas. With the amount of content we are exposed to, recalling an idea we’ve once read, let alone the details required to use it, becomes increasingly difficult. 

The most effective reading mode with the greatest return on investment is Generative Reading. 

Generative Reading

The most effective reading is the one aimed at building something new using the text you’ve read. The value of reading increases by orders of magnitude when you process the text, think about it deeply at various levels, and use it as raw material for generating your own ideas. Like many other valuable activities, Generative Reading is slower and requires more attention and energy that will pay off soon after. 

Being in a Generative Reading mode does not mean you automatically agree and literally apply everything you read as is. Generative Reading means thinking of the text I read and using it to generate new insights. Some of these insights are indeed applications of the ideas encapsulated in the text. In such cases, I process them and devise ways to use them in my life. In other cases, I recognize the value in the ideas I read, but I must adapt them to use them effectively. I might elaborate on them or consider nuances relevant to my challenges. I literally use the ideas in the text as raw material, and I feel free to play with them until I find the right value for me.

Generative Reading can also result in applying the ideas in the text as an analogy: taking some insight from a different domain and applying it to my own challenges. For example, you might read this newsletter and consider how the different modes (from reactive to generative) can be applied to other activities beyond reading.

Even when I disagree with the text, I can use it to generate new insights, such as a better concept. The text, in these cases, is more of a trigger to a thinking process that might result in an opposite conclusion (or anything in-between). With Generative Reading, it is you, the reader, who creates the value regardless of what value the author of the text intended to provide. 

Generative Reading requires focus and attention, but it is the most valuable mode of reading. When you are intentful about it, you can find value in any book, article, and post.  

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