nick blackbournOur time is increasingly being spent in front of a computer screen. Transitioning to a fully paperless setup may require some changes to efficient working ways.  Nick Blackbourn provides advice for setting up your computer for heavy duty on-screen reading. He offers tips here on how to cut out the fluff and focus on core texts, navigate PDFs, and reduce eye strain from screen glare.

computer_monitor_bookI try to read on-screen as much as possible. Why? Because notes typed on-screen can be searched for later, marking/highlighting can be saved, and it makes keeping track of what I’ve read and then retrieving it again much, much easier. Switching to reading on-screen is not initially as easy or comfortable as reading on paper. Paper is ‘real,’ you can mark it anyway you like, there’s no computer related eye-strain, all you need to do is pick up a book or press print and you’re ready to go.

Setting up your computer for heavy duty on-screen reading is not as simple. (What software to use? How to deal with the pdfs? Can I reduce eye strain?) However, with a little setup and using mostly freeware or open-source software, it’s quite easy to go paperless and reap the rewards of on-screen reading. Here are some tips and techniques I’ve found to be useful:

Pocket / Instapaper / Readability:

Reading webpages without all the banner ads and other distractions makes it a lot easier to get through web text. All these services do this, stripping out the fluff and leaving only the core text. I use Pocket, which syncs across the web, my Mac, and my Android phone. I try not to procrastinate (too much) with long-form reading throughout the day, so these services are also a good way to ‘save up’ reading for later.

Start using Pocket here:
Start using Instapaper here:
Start using Readability here:

Use Skim to read PDF Files:

A large chunk of academic reading is of pdf journal articles. I use the open-source software ‘Skim’ to make sense of them. Skim lets you highlight and make notes directly within the pdf file, which means you make the article your own and don’t lose track of your notes or markings. I find that it’s much more useful to have that one easily retrievable annotated pdf file on the computer. The article and my notes are all saved in just one place.

Skim is available for free here:
PDF Xchange Viewer is Windows compatible and is available for free here:

Avoid Scrolling:

I previously used the tool that automatically scrolls down the page at a slow speed. This seemed fantastic: ‘No more page turns,’ I thought, ‘I can read forever!’. The reality: I could only read for half an hour before my eyes began to sting. Rather than continuously scrolling, I now use the page down key; it means your eyes don’t have to continuously readjust to the moving text.

Automatically Adjust Screen Settings with Flux:

Flux is a bit of freeware that alters the screen lighting on your computer, shifting the colour based on the time of day. It’s brighter when the sun is out and automatically changes when it gets darker. I find it helps reduce the eye strain from screen glare that sometimes comes with reading in the dark.

Flux is available for free here:

Zoom In and Use the Biggest Font You Can:

Reading a big font is more comfortable than reading a small font. Obvious, right? There’s no reason to be squinting to read web text on your screen. It is very easy in most browsers to change text size, usually with an easy shortcut. I use Chrome and the shortcut “Command & +/-” to increase and decrease font size as needed.

When reading a pdf, zoom in. If you’re using a small laptop with little screen space, consider getting a second monitor. I have a cheap second monitor I use alongside my laptop that’s been extremely useful and worth every penny.

Resize the Window:

As well as zooming in and out to adjust text size, you should adjust the actual window size as well. This way you aren’t scanning across the whole width of the screen, which invites eye strain. It’s easier on your eyes to make the window narrow and allows your eyes less lateral movement. I use the Kindle app on the computer fairly often and it lets me manipulate the window size very easily. I like a narrow, single column format on a sepia background.

Any Others?

I’ve listed just a few simple things to do / tools to use that make reading on the screen that much easier. I’d love to hear your own tools and tips in the comments:

How to Make Reading on Your Computer a Better Experience
Computer Eye Strain: 10 Steps for Relief

This article was originally published on Nick Blackbourn’s blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author

Nick Blackbourn is a Writer, Historian, & PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews.

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