Memorising verbatim text

Need help memorising verbatim text?

On a few occasions a reader has asked me if I could help in learning pieces of text verbatim, usually for an upcoming exam. And sometimes it’s been very challenging text to memorise, such as technial data, or scientific data. Sorry to say I didn’t really have a good answer.  Memorising verbatim text wasn’t something I’ve ever been very good at, and I didn’t know any particularly effective methods.

I’ve always found it pretty difficult to memorise whole chunks of text, and my methods usually consisted of lots of repetition, writing the text down, reciting it again and again … all the usual stuff. It worked, to an extent, but … well, nothing seemed to really be the definitive answer.

Recently I came across a page on the web that included a simple method, which I’ll outline here so you can try it for yourself. And when I say ‘a simple method’, it’s actually so simple that I can’t believe I haven’t tried it before (although it’s very possible, even quite likely, that I have used it from time to time, but completely forgotten about it … in case you’re new to the site, I should explain, my memory is damaged to some extent, and doesn’t quite work the way it used to).

Okay, here’s the method:

Take your text (poem, speech, list, joke, formula, whatever it may be), and write down the first letter of each word. This results in a string of single letters, each one of which will, hopefully, become a little reminder of the related word. Once you have that, use it as a memory aid. Just have it in front of you for reference, and try to recall the text, using the long string of initial letters as a series of gentle nudges to your natural memory. The clearer you recall the original text, the less often you need to even look at the list of initial letters.

Obviously, you’ll still need to work on one section at a time and use repetition as well. Even writing the text down and speaking it aloud will help. But just be aware that having the long list of initial letters won’t actually work any magic – it won’t just make the whole thing just pop into your memory. You’ll still have to try to memorise the text; it’s just that now you’ll have a simple method to give your memory a shove when it gets stuck in the mud, so to speak.

Told you it was simple!

Now, this might seem ridiculously simple (I did warn you!), but it does seems to be very effective too. And the best way to check it out is to grab a piece of text you might conceivably want to memorise, strip it down to the initial letters, and try it. Or, if you don’t have something that you really need to memorise right now, just choose something, maybe a poem, or a verse from a poem. Just go online and search for favourite poems. Pick one that appeals to you, and make that your test piece.

Now, the simplest way to do this is to have the text on your screen and open Notepad (or any text editor). Then just write down the initial letter of every word in order, adding a space between them. Put in any formatting or punctuation, e.g. commas, semi-colons, question marks, the start of a new line, etc. And if a word contains an apostrophe, add that in as well, and the following letter. For example, let’s say the text was:

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t.

then the reduced-to-initials version would be:

I y t y a b, y a
I y t y d n, y d’t,
I y l t w, b y t y c’t
I i a c y w’t.

Now you have the original text, and you have the ‘initials’ text. Now read through the original text, preferably a few times (four or five would be good), and then put it to one side. What you’re trying to do here is to get the sound of it in your mind. You might get this sound and rhythm just fine from hearing your own internal voice reciting the lines, or it might work better for you if you physically speak the lines. Either way is okay, it’s just a matter of what works better for you.

Now, with just the Notepad page open on your screen, showing the string of initials, try to mentally recite the original text. Try to say it from memory, but glance at the initials any time you feel the need.

Once in a while, you might need to take a peep at the original to see the actual words (Alt-Tabbing from the full text to the reduced version). The important thing in this method is to keep practising recall, not just repeating. You’re trying to strengthen the neural pathway that is being formed by the new memory, and you do that by re-treading that pathway, rather than by repeatedly looking at the text. If you depend on looking at the original text all the time you’re only practising repeating it, not recalling it. Each time you have to look at the text for help, you are, in effect, giving up on memorising.

You’ll probably find that this method helps you recall a bit more each time you go through this process, so each time you try reciting the text you’ll probably get further than last time. You might actually find you remember a surprising amount each time, I don’t know. I do know you’ll almost certainly find it easier to commit the text to memory faster using this method than by just repeating it and hoping for the best, and looking at the original every time you come to a halt. Because that really is just practising repeating, not recalling.

A little piece of software always helps!

I’m indebted to Mark Shead, who wrote this page, and I encourage you to visit it to read the full article. You’ll find there’s a little piece of software on that page to help you with this. It consists of two text boxes; just write (or paste) your text into the first box, click the ‘convert’ key, and the string of initials will appear in the second box.

If, by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling - learning poetry can help in memorising verbatim text

Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936

I’ve used this method to memorise “If”, a truly inspirational poem by Rudyard Kipling (and the nation’s favourite, it turns out). It wasn’t easy for me, but I managed it. I still trip up on the occasional word, but I’m practising it every day and I’m sure it’ll soon be firmly memorised. Without this method it would have been much harder, and I might just have given up on it, to be honest (which would have been a shame, since the poem is all about doing a thing correctly and sticking to it till it’s done!)

Incidentally, Kipling may not be well known to younger readers, but films of some of this works will surely be: Gunga Din, Captains Courageous, The Jungle Book, and The Man Who Would Be King.

This has inspired me to resolve to start to memorise more poetry – I aim to build up a repertoire of several poems I really like so that I always have them with me, wherever I go. I particularly like inspirational poetry, and searching online I’ve found a couple just this morning: “Thinking”, by Walter D. Wintle, and “It Couldn’t Be Done”, by Edgar Albert Guest.

In fact, I’ll include the text of all three here, in case you want to use them to practise memorising text verbatim.

If     by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
are losing theirs a
nd blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, 
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves t
o make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!


Thinking     by Walter D. Wintle

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins


It Couldn’t Be Done     by Edward Albert Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.


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