How To Read On A Computer Screen


I 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 later much, much easier. (UPDATE: I’ve changed my thinking on this.)

You can even take your entire library with you for that moment on the beach when you just *have* to flick through that book you read 3 and a half years old…

But the switch to paperless reading isn’t effortless. Initially it’s not 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 and you’re ready to go. I don’t need to explain how books work :-)

Setting up your computer for heavy duty on-screen reading is not quite as simple as picking a weighty tome from the shelf:

  • What software should I use?
  • How do I manage pdf documents for reading?
  • How can I reduce eye strain?

However, with a little setup and downloading 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. A number of read-it-later service can do this for you. They strip out the fluff and leave only the core text.

You could use an ad blocking service for this (i.e Adblock: But you’re still left with website layout design of varying quality. Isn’t it annoying when you have to click ‘next page’ every few paragraphs?!

I use Pocket, which syncs across the web, my Mac, and my mobile 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.

In fact, this has become my Golden Rule, which I seldom break:

“I am only permitted to read stuff online through a read it later service”

– The Golden Rule

This way you can read clean text and also avoid the internet rabbit hole.

You can start using Pocket here:

Start using Instapaper here:

Start using Feedly 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:

I’ve also started using an iPad for reading and annotating. If you have an iPad (or other tablet) you might this post on ‘Annotating PDFs on an iPad‘ useful.

Avoid Scrolling:

I previously used a tool that automatically scrolls down the page at a slow speed. (Info available here.) Auto-scroll 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 burn.

Following the text as it edges down the screen is a terrible eye strain. You’re asking your eyes to focus on a back lit screen, comprehend a digital font, WHILE IT’S MOVING. Please don’t do it.

Rather than continuously scrolling, use the page down key; it means your eyes don’t have to continuously readjust to the moving text. It should be right there on your keyboard and if it isn’t, learn the short cut. (It’s fn+down on my Mac.)

Pocket has a feature called ‘flipping’ if you use it on your mobile device. Once enabled it stops scrolling articles and instead formats them as pages. If you use Pocket I would strongly recommend learning how to use this feature!

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 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:

Think of your eyes:

Nothing in this post is very imaginative, most of the suggestions are to reduce the workload on your eyes. Be kind to them and on screen reading will be much easier.

Some Links:

How to Make Reading on Your Computer a Better Experience

Computer Eye Strain: 10 Steps for Relief

6 replies
  1. wallaroo says:

    I edit The DEN Distance Education Newsletter at Charles Sturt University – may I have your permission to reproduce some of your hints with a link back to this page. with thanks

    Sandra stewart Editor The DEN


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