Speed-reading pdfs using the “Spritz” technique

sprint reader logoA couple of days ago, I came across Spritz, a company that is popularizing a speed reading technology whose name I’ve forgotten called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation.  You get the idea once you look at the Spritz website. I immediately thought that this could be a way for me to read all those texts that I have to read as an academic a lot faster.

I am a very slow reader for three reasons: the first is that I look up every other reference and almost all footnotes. Sometimes I get so distracted that I even look up some of the references and start reading those instead (and so on).

Another reason is that when I read an interesting paragraph of sentence, that often triggers my own thoughts and associations and I start wandering off, thinking about how I might integrate that idea into my own text or whatever.

Finally, the third problem is that I simply read slowly, I guess because I really want to understand and thing through everything, rather than focusing on the essentials.

Now, I don’t want to philosphize too much about the pros and cons of speed reading here. Suffice it to say that if the aim is to get through a text reasonably fast at 350 words per minute with at least superficial understanding of the content (or even ridiculously fast at 800 wpm with probably minimal understanding but a rough idea), then this Spritz technique seems adequate to me, and I have indeed read two articles that way yesterday.

My point here is to show you how to read pdfs using this technique (not the original Spritz itself, cause their app is not released yet) because the reading apps that are out there at the moment seem to work only with plain text, while most academic articles come as pdf files.

It’s not a big deal, actually, but it took me a while to figure it out nevertheless. All you need is the Chrome bowser with the Sprint Reader extension installed. You also need to make sure that you have the native Chrome PDF Viewer enabled. This is the case by default, but if you are using Adobe Reader or Adobe Acrobat, you might have disabled it. In order to enable Chrome PDF Viewer, type “chrome://plugins/” into Chrome’s address bar and scroll down to find Chrome PDF Viewer and, well, enable it. The following will not work with pdf-files that are not displayed using Chrome’s PDF viewer.

You can now use Sprint Reader to speed read not only text on websites but also your locally stored pdf files (just drag them into the browser). Select the text you want to read, right click and select “Sprint read selected text”. There you go. (Needless to say that your pdf file needs to have actual text in it, not just a scanned image of text. If you have an image of text, you need to run some OCR on it.)

The Sprint Reader extension in action
The Sprint Reader extension in action

I recommend setting the “pause after period” higher than the default 450 milliseconds. I’m currently using 900. I also set the “pause after paragraph” to 2000, but that basically has no effect when reading a pdf, because there seem to be no paragraphs in there that the Sprint Reader would recognize as such, unfortunately.

There are also a couple of other drawbacks that we currently will have to live with, especially that the reader will – not surprisingly – read all the text in the pdf, which means it will also read the header on each page, the page numbers, and – most annoyingly, the text inserted on every page by various publishers, such as:

This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

You will also encounter problems when there are tables and figures in the text, but hey, otherwise it works okay.

Why did I chose Sprint Reader and not any of the many other similar services and extensions such as Spreed – speed read the web, Spread Speed Reading Extension, Spreeder, or OpenSpritz, to name but a few? Well, it’s the best of them all. It’s not perfect (I did encounter a couple of crashes or whatever it was when it simply did not work until I restarted the browser), but it is very customizable and it works with pdfs, which not all of the others do.

Having said that, here are some suggestions for improvement in Sprint Reader, especially for people like me reading scientific texts:

  1. Add an option to exclude (i.e. hopp over) brackets containing a four digit number. Why? Because that would exclude all references provided using an Author-Year citation style and make reading academic texts a lot easier.
  2. Recognize abbreviations such as e.g. and treat the dots in these differently (i.e. don’t apply the “pause after period” rule). One quick way of minimizing this problem could be by checking whether the dot is followed by a capital letter. If not, it’s not a period.
  3. It would be nice to be able to exclude customized strings, such as “This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions” (see above)
  4. Ignore hyphens at line breaks and join the words to one. The few cases where the hyphen should not be eliminated because it is a hyphened word, are negligible.
  5. Recognize paragraphs in pdfs (see above). I’m not sure whether this is possible, but I might as well add it to my wish list.
  6. Add a keyboard shortcut for quick rewind as, for example Spreed has it (I think it was spreed anyway). In addition, it would be nice to have the replay at a lower speed and then back to normal speed when passing the point where the rewind was initiated.
  7. The extension should not be dependent on the text selection in chrome, once it has started. This is feels almost like a bug to me, although it is not, but it is a bit of a pain in the *** that you cannot unselect the text you are currently reading without the reader losing track of it. It would be better if the reader would load the whole text into its own memory, once you press play, making it independent from what happens in the browser.

UPDATE: I just realized that the Sprint Reader sometimes seems to have problems rendering text in pdfs. I have a pdf in which it reads some of the text without problem but when I select and right click other parts, there is not even a possibility to select “Sprint read selected text”. In fact, this may be a problem of chrome (or the pdf?) and not the extension. Either way, be prepared to encounter this problem with your favourite pdf file…