One of the most daunting tasks of research is not finding the sources themselves but actually reading them. Even if you’re a person who loves reading, doing so for pleasure is not the same fact-finding mission that the research mindset requires. When you’re reading for research, you’re a detective, looking for clues in the world that will support your pre-set idea about a topic. When you think about it in those terms, reading requires a different set of skills. Sure, it might be different than reading a novel, but it can be easily practiced and will not require you to read carefully from beginning to end. You can get the information you need without making it too difficult on yourself.
Critical reading of sources
So, let’s say you’re looking at a printout of a journal article you found on an academic database. It’s long—over ten pages!—but you know it’s got information you’d like to use in your essay. How do you wade through it, knowing you’ll need to go through many other sources just like it?
First, get clear in your brain what your purpose is with this piece. What information are you looking for, exactly? Perhaps your purpose isn’t to find information. Maybe you want to figure out how this piece is organized to get inspiration for your own piece’s organization. You might also be trying to figure out the merits of this particular writer’s arguments. Whatever it is you’re doing, make sure you’ve got that clearly in your mind before you start.
Now, it’s time to start reading. Your initial impulse might be to start at the beginning and read all the way through. You could do this, of course. Along the way, you might highlight especially useful information, perhaps underlining unknown words to look up later or summarizing in a few words what each paragraph is about. This engagement with the text is important: it keeps you from getting bored and makes it easier later on when you want to review the source again and aren’t especially interested in re-reading again from the beginning (who would be?). When you’re done, you might immediately summarize the source on a separate sheet of paper, recalling the most important information you remember from the text.
If it makes you feel a little sick thinking about reading straight through, you have a few options. First, why not just find the thesis statement (or, in a medical study journal article, start by looking at the end where it will have a section titled something like "experiment results"). By reading the central argument of the academic source first, you can decide whether or not you need it. And remember, this is what people will do with your argument research paper, as well!
Second, you might consider the “skim and savor” method. Read the entire introductory paragraph. Then, for most of the rest of the piece, you’re skimming. Carefully read the first sentence in the paragraph, and then let your eyes lightly move over the rest of the paragraph, ending with carefully reading the last sentence. If you see something useful, read that part carefully—that’s the savoring part. Highlight. Circle. Put hearts and stars around it. Do whatever you need to do to be able to go back and find that part. Then, read the entire concluding paragraph. This tactic will give you a sense of where the most useful information to you is and be able to come back to it quickly.
One last word of advice: keep track of all your sources! You could print them off, keep a list of them in a notebook, make a list in a word processing document on your computer, email the links to yourself, take pictures of the screen, use an archive like Evernote or Pinterest to collect and organize research…do whatever you have to do to make sure all your precious research isn’t lost.
So, read, read, read, listen, listen, listen, search, search, search, watch, watch, watch. Take notes. Toss out the stupid stuff and find what is useful. Get good at reading and clicking through your phone to find things.
Example: Annotating a text