Janet Riley

Tame the Reading Backlog with Spritz

December 04, 2014 | In 30 days


If your To Read stack is like mine it never gets smaller. Every day I send more articles to Instapaper to languish.

Spritz launched its speed-reading tool earlier this year. I turned it on my backlog to see if it could help.

What it does

Spritz displays texts a word at a time at high speed. It adds formatting and word breaks to help comprehension. Here's a short sample.

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div data-role="spritzer" data-url="http://janetriley.net/static/speed_reading_excerpt.html" data-options='{"speedItems": [100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 1000], "defaultSpeed": 400 }'

Like traditional speed reading techniques, Spritz uses a rapid pace to keep you from reading aloud. Spritz displays all the words in one place. By bringing the words to your eyes, you don't lose time traversing the page.

The speed ratchets up as high as you can keep up with. Above 700 words per minute I had to choose between reading and blinking. I held out as long as my drying eyes allowed.

The main difference I experienced versus traditional skimming is content coverage. When I zoom-scroll I read the headlines and a random sample of sentences. With Spritz I see all the words. I don't dwell on them, but I see the entire article.

Where to get it

You can stream any web page through Spritz's bookmarklet. Sites like Readsy and The Old Reader have more direct integration, with links to launch a viewer. Apps like Rapid Reader tie in with your Instapaper and Readability accounts.

I requested a developer's license to embed the reader in this page.

Reading for Purpose versus Reading for Pleasure

Though some technical writing is worth savoring, most is like eating a Power Bar - done for a specific purpose, and not something one lingers over. My goal for this exercise was to extract information quickly and sift out what needs deeper thought.

I don't recommend Spritz for pleasure reading. The accelerated pace obliterates the author’s voice, timing, and flavor. This is a matter of using the wrong tool for the job, not a shortcoming of Spritz.

Experiments

I sampled several kinds of writing:

Results

1. GREAT FOR SKIMMING: or, How I Caught Up on the Article Pile

Spritz let me catch up on my RSS feeds - finally! The Old Reader includes a Spritz button at the top of each article.

There seemed to be a balance between length and detail. Lighter conversational posts were easy to follow, as were technical articles where I already have deep understanding. Less familiar topics were fine if the article was long enough.

Aggregation newsletters like Python Weekly were too terse. They cover a broad set of topics with only a couple sentences per item. At high speed there wasn't enough time to make sense of it. A new bullet point started just as I understood what the old one was talking about.

How’s retention? Pretty good. I still recall the details of patterns from Martin Fowler's article archive a couple months later. ( Don't follow my example. His site deserves longer consideration.)

Recall is higher than scrolling through headers. I saw all of the words in the articles, so saw all of the ideas.

2. WORTH EXPLORING: Previewing and Reviewing

Speed reading didn’t work for learning new subjects. There's often visual back-and-forth between paragraphs to relate ideas. It wasn't possible with Spritz's top-speed linear presentation.

That said, Spritz complements the learning process by enabling efficient preview and review.

I downed Just Enough Research for a forgotten book club meeting using Safari Books Online and Spritz's bookmarklet. The book was well suited to a quick read-through. It's introductory, the tone is conversational, and the topic is concrete. I was even able to touch-type brief notes as I read. Thumbs up for getting a fast introduction to a subject. "Just Enough Research" is substantial enough to need a real reading later, but this was fine for a first pass.

Spritz is effective for review as well. I read a transcript of a Ruby Rogues podcast I’d listened to in the car. Since I'd already heard it, I was able to crank the reading speed up to the maximum, twice as fast as my normal speed. ( Don’t blink!) I absorbed the complex ideas earlier while listening. Speed reading reinforced the details.

3. LOST IN TRANSLATION: Formatted Text

Some genres, like code and poetry, convey a lot of information in visual layout and the sound of words. These are lost in Spritz's ever-onward stream.

Reading code requires looking back and forth between sections to get the full picture. Languages like Python use indentation to show meaning. Spritz is a hindrance for anything but short embedded code samples.

Spritz is poorly suited to pieces where the sound and pace is important. The first book I Spritzed was Mark Twain's essay "How to Tell a Story". Twain says,

"The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length—no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and [and if too long] the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can't surprise them, of course."

Spritz's rapid-fire monotone illustrated Twain's point perfectly. That this should be the first text I speed-read was exquisite comic timing.

Would poetry fare any better? Something with a strict meter and strong rhyme scheme? Not at all. Poe's "The Raven" was stuttering and awkward. Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha fares worse. On the page, the poem is stately and measured:

"By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water."

It dissolves into word salad in the reader.

4. THE SURPRISE: Bad for Super-Skimming

Some books want ruthless skimming. I'm especially impatient with popular nonfiction, where every idea is trailed by three supporting anecdotes. Getting to the good stuff is like digging through a box of packing peanuts. These are ideal candidates for speed reading.

Oyster partnered with Spritz to offer 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for free. I found value in it when I read the hardcopy, but didn't want to spend the time on it again. Here was a perfect opportunity.

Spritz couldn't go fast enough. There was no escape from the endless examples. Spritz estimated that 7 Habits would take 4 hours to finish at 600 words per minute, the fastest rate Oyster's embedded reader offers. That was more than I wanted to spend.

The most efficient way to skim is flipping pages in a book. Books allow non-sequential access. The layout tells us a great deal at a glance, and we remember the physical location of information. I'll stick to hardcopy for the ultra-fast track.

SUMMARY

Spritz is a great tool for skimming conversational posts and familiar subjects.

Previewing and reviewing is a good supplement to learning.

A printed text is best when you need fast, random-access skimming.

Use Spritz to make more time for reading fiction slowly, when you can savor the author's words.