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How can I read more effectively for my essay?

Problem: You’re writing an essay / preparing for a tutorial or seminar, and want to do a lot of reading, but you don’t really have that much time. Solution: You need a reading strategy. This means not just passively reading what is set before you, but actively engaging with it: be clear about your aims and objectives, set reading priorities. This blogpost makes suggestions for how to approach the literature with a purpose, make your reading more focussed, and save time in the process.

Let’s take it step by step:

Step 1: Before you start reading: Be clear about what you want from the text. What kind of information exactly are you looking for? This should be informed by your essay or research question, or if it’s for a seminar or tutorial, the seminar or tutorial questions, or the points of the reading that were highlighted in the lecture: What information do you need, what are the themes you are looking for, what is relevant for you to address these questions? Maybe make a few bullet points – this will be a reminder that keeps you on track when reading.

Step 2: Think about how much time you (realistically) want to spend on the reading. If it’s a key text, say a 10,000 word journal article or book chapter, give yourself, for example, two hours to start with. If it’s a marginal text, give yourself half an hour. Some texts are more important than others. Set priorities, proceed accordingly. See how much you can get out of reading the text in the time you have allocated for it. You can always give yourself more time if you need it, but giving yourself a time frame before you start will keep you focussed on the important parts, rather than getting lost in less important details.

Step 3: Read the abstract (if there is one) and the introduction. At this point, you still want to read reasonably carefully and pay attention to details. Take notes. The introduction should tell you what is in the article. If the introduction is well written, you now know what to expect, you have a map and a compass for the main part of the article or book chapter. With your learning objectives in mind, think about which parts of the text will be most relevant for you.

low angle view of tower books
Books over books over books! Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

Step 4: Now go crazy, and jump right to the conclusion. The conclusion, ideally, summarizes the main points of the main part. Do you understand all the points made in the conclusion? Sometimes, this is fairly straightforward, but other times less so. If less so, you will find it explained in more detail in the main part of the text. If you do already understand the points just from reading the conclusion, all you now still need from the main part is illustration and examples.

Step 5: Note how you are now actively engaging with the literature. You are in control and feel on top of it. Go on, feel it! You’re in charge! Internalizing these positive emotions will help you develop the right habits and become a happier, and more empowered student or scholar in the long term – you will be less likely to feel overwhelmed by big tasks, because you know you can handle them.

Step 6: Read the main part. If intro and conclusion were well written, all you need now is some elaboration on points that are not clear to you yet, and illustration and examples. Focus on those parts of the text that are relevant for your learning objectives. Skim-read: Check each chapter, and each paragraph for its relevance – this can be done e.g. by scanning for relevant key words or reading the first sentence of each paragraph (ideally, it serves as a mini-introduction to the paragraph), and the last sentence (which ideally contextualises the paragraph with the overall argument – this is also how you should write). You can then decide if the section merits closer attention. Skip: Sometimes, you can skip entire chapters or paragraphs if they are not relevant for your learning objectives. As you proceed, take notes, but be selective on what you take notes of, and do so with an eye on your learning objectives.

Step 7: Almost there! This last step is optional, but I certainly recommend it. It will help you process the information, better retain it in the long term, as well as facilitate deeper understanding and critical engagement. Sketch it all out. Draw a mind map. What themes were most important in the reading? What cause-effect relations could you identify? What is the main argument of the text? How do the different points of the argument connect? You might also want to think about how the theory applies to real-life examples or how it compares to other interpretations that you have read. The point here is to not just read the text, but also to include an element in your reading approach that helps you further process the information. There are many different ways of doing this. Experiment, and see what works best for you.

In addition to having a reading strategy, you might also want to consider working on your reading skills. Chances are you could actually read a lot faster than you are doing currently, and with some practice, you could do this without losing much or any of your comprehension of the text. The gold standard for this is aptly called ‘speed reading’, and you can read about it here, here, or here. This method uses a number of techniques that can speed up your reading. These techniques have mysterious names such as meta-guiding or the tracker-and-pacer-method. You don’t need to become a master in speed readings, but even if you just learn some of these techniques (even just stopping to vocalise in your head what you are reading could make a big difference), it could significantly boost both your reading speed and even aid your overall comprehension. Read up on it, and consider taking a course on speed reading.

Two Final Thoughts

First, I want to emphasise that even though the methods discussed here will save you time, they are not about cutting corners. It’s the opposite! Reading with purpose and intent will actually make you a better scholar, as it encourages you to approach the readings with critical awareness and actively engage with them rather than passively (and uncritically) taking on board whatever the readings are telling you. And the time that you save will free you up to engage with additional perspectives and readings, and go into breadth, in addition to depth.

Secondly, studying is not all about speed and effectiveness. Joy can be found in reading a text more carefully and leisurely. Sometimes you will find inspiration in ideas that were not on your list of ‘target knowledge’. Sometimes you will want to take a break from the reading, because you just read something that completely blew your mind and you need a few minutes to digest it. Being able to read with speed and purpose is an advantage, for sure. But there is more to learning. Don’t forget that. Happy reading!

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