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How To Become a Better Reader

There are literally dozens of articles online about how to write better articles, but I’ve never come across one with tips on being a better reader.


This is a shame, because it’s not all about the writer; for every writer of a Web design blog, there are 10,000 readers. So for something a little different, here are six tips for you to bear in mind the next time you’re reading something online.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Don’t Take Things at Face Value Link

Blogs and online articles are an incredible resource. Whether you’re a Web newbie or a seasoned pro, there’s always something new to read and learn — whether it’s about an emerging design trend, usability best practice or a new property of CSS3.

However, every article ever written has something in common: they were all written by a person, and as much as we’d all like to be perfect, sometimes we get things wrong.

I’m not suggesting that a writer would intentionally publish something that was incorrect or misleading; that would be silly. What I’m saying is: don’t immediately assume that something you’ve read is correct, even if the author is someone whose opinion you respect and trust. Try doing a little extended research of your own afterward.

By using your own effort to dig deeper into what you’ve just read, you’ll be able to discover not only its validity, but also new information on the subject that you might not have otherwise come across.


Comments Make the World Go Round Link

Nowadays, pretty much every article you read will have the facility to leave comments at the end. Yet even on websites that get massive traffic, you’ll often see posts with barely any comments at all. Did no-one like the post, or did they simply feel it wasn’t worth commenting on?

A comment is more than just a simple “Thanks,” or “Good job.” Comments tell the author that you enjoyed the content they worked hard to produce, and encourages them to continue doing so in future — which means there’ll be even more for you to read!

Comments are a valuable and integral part of an online article, not a distinct entity that appears as an afterthought. Your comment doesn’t even need to be positive. If a post sucked, or was inaccurate, say so rather than ignore it. Even negative feedback has a part to play — just make sure your comments are polite.

Interact and Get Social Link

Comments aren’t always about you, the article or the writer. Often a conversation thread will develop between two or more commentators which diverges so much, it has little to do with the original topic. Occasionally a heated argument will form, which is always fun to read.

If you have your own opinion on what’s being discussed, become part of the discussion. By leaving comments that are more than just a quick “Thanks,” you’ll be contributing to both the article and the wider community.

There’s a good example of this in a Smashing Magazine article about transparent CSS sprites6 — the comments immediately descended into a discussion/argument about IE6’s handling of PNG files, which lead to lots of information-sharing and links to useful resources.

Don’t forget to make use of social networking buttons, if you can; the more people you tell about a good post, the more people will read it, which in the long run means more comments, more articles and more information sharing.


Take Your Time Link

Jakob Nielsen in “How Little Do Users Read?” notes that visitors to a website will generally read (or skim) about 20%8 of the content. This is fine for the average e-commerce website, but it should not be the case when reading an article.

Articles are meant to be read, and read well. A 1,000-word article wasn’t written to be merely skimmed. A lot of thought, time and effort went into its creation.

To get the most from a longer piece of writing, you need to take your time; absorb the information; and appreciate it. In a long article, observations made early in the text may echo important points made later on. Longer or more complicated articles can seem quite daunting and may increase the temptation to skim, but trust me: take your time, persevere and you’ll get much more out of reading it than you thought you would.

Learn By Doing Link

There’s a tutorial for pretty much everything these days, so if you’ve read one that you think will be useful to you in future, make sure you set up a quick test page on your local machine and try it out — that’s the only way the lessons learned will really stick in your mind.

Even better, if it’s a front-end tutorial, fire up Firebug and play with the demo page instead! Simply trying to remember what you’ve read won’t work; a mere 30 seconds after you’ve finished, your short-term memory will have been overwritten with something else.

By looking at, writing and tweaking code, you’ll be making lasting imprints on your brain that will be invaluable for remembering function names, special libraries and reference resources when you need to reference and rewrite the code later on. You could use browser bookmarks to save things for later, but be honest: who hasn’t got a bookmark list a mile long that they’ve been meaning to go through for months, and probably never will?


Take Care When Dealing With Analogies Link

Analogies are a great way to explain complicated concepts to anyone, whatever their expertise level, because they use real-world metaphors to translate the details into something everyone is familiar with. However, analogies can only go so far; as the reader, you need to be careful not to take analogies too literally.

For example, if you were explaining Web browsers to someone unfamiliar with the Web and bring up the subject of browser speed, you might say that Google Chrome is like a Ferrari, whereas IE8 is like a pickup truck.

Even if they have never heard of Chrome, they’ll understand that it’s much faster than IE8 because everyone knows a Ferrari can go faster than a pickup truck.

The catch is that our non-techie friend may incorrectly reference that analogy when comparing other aspects of Web browsers — a pickup can, for example, carry more than a Ferrari — and may infer that IE8 can handle more open tabs, and crashes less, than Chrome (I don’t think so). Also, it’s often all too easy for a writer to find an analogy that supports their argument even if it’s incorrect — because the analogy may make sense even if it doesn’t accurately model the situation.

In Conclusion Link

Remember that as a reader, you’re at least half of the equation when it comes to appreciating Web content. I hope you’ve found these points informative and will put them to good use in getting more from what you read online.

Further Reading Link

Footnotes Link

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Jonathan Phillips is a front- and back-end web developer from England who is passionate about creating great websites. Follow him on Twitter or visit his blog.

  1. 1

    Thanks. Good job.

    That said, I’d actually say that leaving such a simple comment doesn’t help drive the conversation on at all. I’d go as far as saying it stunts the conversation. Take a look at Smashing Mag for example, so many simple congratulatory comments actually get in the way of a more involved discussion.

  2. 3

    Some good points there. I agree esp. with the one about comments.

    To be honest I skimmed till the Nielsen part at my first read. After that I figured I had better read rest of the article. ^_^

    Btw you seem to have duplicated introduction for some reason. Might want to fix that. :)

  3. 5

    Good article :)

    Many thanks,,,

  4. 6

    Is so true that we all skim everything these days, I can not count the amount of times when skimming through a tutorial or lesson I missed an important bit and had to go back and read it properly.
    We all live and learn after all. :-)

    • 7

      I agree. It seems like with all the blogs, rss, twitter and other avenues that we have to get content, there seems to be information overload. I just try my best to look through them and find the good articles and then those are the ones that I usually try to read and comment on.

  5. 8

    Great article. Thanks for keeping it somewhat brief; I definitely read more than 20% of this =P

    I read a lot of articles every day, but rarely do I comment on them. This persuaded me to change that.
    Keep up the good work!

  6. 10

    Not going to lie, i was about to skim this article but i decided after reading the first 2 paragraphs that it seemed that you had a genuine interest in the subject; and were trying to share the knowledge :)


    • 11

      Thank you for reading the entire article Justin.

    • 12

      I’m not going to lie either, I totally skimmed this articles (at first). In fact I went directly to the “In conclusion” part (shame on me). Then I went to the comment and I started reading them. I saw yours and I thought “Ok, it was silly to skim this”. Your comment convinced me to read the whole article. So, yes, comment are useful and thank you for commenting.

      I especially liked the “Take your time” advice. In a world where everything goes faster and faster everyday, we tend to forget to take our time.
      Ah, and the bookmark part is so true, ha ha!!

      Thank you Jonathan for writing this. This was an interesting reading about reading.

  7. 13

    Thanks a lot for a such a Good Article.
    Article is not just an informative. It is more about educating to become a good reader.

    Looking forwards for some good articles from you….

  8. 14

    I guess people who read the article didn’t put the comments part in practice judging by the comments so far :)

    I agree with Ian P. though, I think simple comments will just add noise to conversation in comments.
    It would be nice if a comment system for webpages would learn to differentiate these comments and allow people to browse for these two types of comments. Anyone wants to join me and do something like this?

    • 15

      I think Chris Coyier has done something like this on his blog at CSS-Tricks. That is definitely a good idea though.

  9. 16

    Thanks for the article. I totally agree! I don’t use to leave comments, principally on english posts cause my english is not that good. But i’ll make that effort from now on!

    • 17

      Commenting is definitely a good thing. One thing that it does also is it helps to promote a community atmosphere. For instance, if you are a frequent commenter, you start to build a little bit of a relationship with the writer and with the other commenters.

  10. 18

    I especially like the idea of experimenting with the post using Firebug, or whatever you need to do to make the content part of you. Thanks for an interesting perspective.

  11. 20

    I’m sharing your post with my students. We could all use a reminder of what it means to be a good reader.

    • 21

      Thank you Cynara. I’m sure your students will enjoy Jonathan’s article. There are a lot of good tips in here that they can apply.

  12. 22

    Sure, a simple “thank you” is ok, but I think, we can be a little specific as well. For instance, what are you thankful for in the article? What part of it did you like, etc? I think being more detailed in your comment will help the writer know what it is that he did well in the article.

  13. 23

    Haha, I agree. I hate when people just use the comment form to spam their links.

  14. 24

    Mad props to Jad for answering each comment, haven’t seen that done in a long while.

  15. 25

    What a great read. You nailed it. @Jad, sure glad you are active again.

  16. 26

    I especially like the idea of experimenting with the post using Firebug, or whatever you need to do to make the content part of you.

  17. 27

    I liked it over all, I especially liked the advice on experimenting when reading tutorials. Don’t know about others, but whenever, I read things that other “pros” do and that they are the same as what I do. It make me feel like “YES! I am doing something right”.

    Personally, when I read the already made comments, I think that I’m out of my depth and just don’t bother to comment at all – as I do agree that their is no point on saying just “good job”.

    though, It be nice if the blog posts always had a like button, that way the author knows that even though people have not commented the audience still appreciates their efforts (though it be nice if the “like” button be a universal thing – as not all have a facebook account)

  18. 28

    “Even if they have never heard of Chrome, they’ll understand that it’s much faster than IE8 because everyone knows a Ferrari can go faster than a pickup truck”


  19. 29

    Prateek Dwivedi

    March 10, 2011 7:31 pm

    That was a good one…
    And I must add, that it is unique…..
    Smashing Magazine team helped me a lot….Keep it Up.

  20. 30

    Nice article. Well written and even better explained.

    Really, good job and keep these coming. ;)

  21. 31

    Tthis article sucks and I I skimmed everything…

    I’m just kidding, I’m happy I fully read this, I’m often one of those reading tons of useful articles in a rush thinking there is a deadline to reach.

    I’m bound to make a con tikis effort from now on and time my time as you suggest.
    Again thank you for such a simply instructive and well written article.

  22. 32

    As a designer who has been gradually moving more towards messaging and copy side of things, I found your reference to Nielsen’s statistic about people only reading 20% of content a good reminder that skimming is (unfortunately) the way most people read online. We may not ever be able to change that, but by breaking up long articles with headlines, short paragraphs, call-outs, block quotes and images, we can hopefully try to grab a reader’s attention and direct them towards the meat of the article – something magazines have always done well. With tablets becoming more common (combined with html5 and css3) it will be interesting to see if the magazine-style layout will become more popular, and a possible solution for encouraging users to read instead of skim.

  23. 33

    Ahh! after a long time the informer is back. Great come back.

  24. 34

    Never thought about that comment thing. Often I’ve just been annoyed about inappropriate comments and almost stopped reading them at all, not to mention commenting myself. I guess I’ll rethink this habit as from now. Thanks for these steps becoming a better reader!

  25. 35

    i liked your article very much
    planning to read much more articles like this

  26. 36

    So encouraging things are provided here,I really happy to read your post


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