Read Like a Writer
Good writing begins with good reading. Almost all good readers are good writers because they have familiarized themselves with and are not afraid of different styles, genres, diction, grammar, and levels of difficulty.
But many students don’t like to read and don’t read for pleasure. Unfortunately for them, college is reading intensive. You must be able to read effectively to perform effectively in college, and it helps if you can turn the process from a chore into a pleasure. So how can you learn to approach confidently the difficult texts you will encounter during your study?
In other words, how can you become a reader, or a better reader?
- Good readers almost always annotate the text as they read.
- Good readers know that almost all non-fiction texts—no matter the discipline, level of difficulty, or genre—follow pretty much the same pattern. The main idea comes at the beginning, the body paragraphs support the main idea, and the conclusion wraps up the whole thing. All the way back in grade school, you may have learned this formula for presenting your work: “Say what you are going to say, then say it, then say what you just said.” This describes a PhD dissertation as well as it did your fifth-grade book report.
- Good writers don’t write to obscure; they write to clarify. (Mostly.) In order to be clear, they use the conventions of standard professional or academic non-fiction prose writing. If you know these conventions and their purpose, you will never get lost in someone’s written statement. You already know that most non-fiction texts have an intro, a supporting body, and a conclusion (see #2 above). These elements too are conventions. Other conventions to look for:
The title: Most times, the title is a phrase that conveys the author’s stance, thesis questions, or argument. Occasionally, in popular literature and especially in news and social media, titles can be somewhat miseading because they are meant to generate readership. But titles always give you a clue to the authors’ topic.
The main idea or thesis: Sometimes students tell us that the thesis should come at the end of the first paragraph, but a more accurate place to look for the thesis is at the end of the introduction, which may or may not be a paragraph in length. In a book, for example, the introduction may be a full chapter on its own. In other texts, where does the introduction end? It depends—in a scholarly work, it may end before the first subsection. In a lengthy magazine essay or article, after a few paragraphs. Sometimes, in an essay that began as a speech or a in written essay that speaks directly to the reader, the main idea may come immediately at the beginning of the work in its own separate sentence or paragraph and then be followed by a more traditional introduction. Think about what you’re reading and the author’s purpose and look for clues to guide you to the main idea. If you can’t find it at the beginning, look for it in the conclusion, where the author usually restates the main idea.
The body: Where does the the author often go after the introduction? To a history of the topic. To shocking statistics or vivid personal stories. To a definition of the problem under discussion. What do all these examples have in common? They set up a context for the development of the main idea. They tell you what you have to understand in order to appreciate the train of the authors’ thinking.
Transitions: Look for transitional sentences at the beginning of paragraphs that introduce new ideas and sections of the work. “There are numerous reasons for the rapid decline in the creation of new social media outlets after 2010” clearly is introducing a section that may be several paragraphs or pages in length. “But not all scholars agree with my interpretation of the data” clearly introduces a section of counterargument AND suggests that a restatement of the author’s main idea or a supporting idea has just come before in the previous paragraph. Pay attention to what these transition sentences are telling you.
Conclusions: Hard to write but easy to find in your reading. Look also for “pre-conclusions,” or transitional statements like “Before ending, there is one final point that must be made . . . or “Finally, let me turn to . . . ” that suggest the author is wrapping up the main argument. Sometimes, there is no transition to this pre-conclusion, but the author may still introduce a new point that is less important than or peripheral to the main points. Many times, the conclusion proper will begin with a coordinating conjunction (but, so, and). Look for these subtle cues.
- If you are not already a good reader with an extensive vocabulary, it can be difficult to pick up rhetorical subtleties and to keep previous points in mind as you continue to read—especially with long works. Here, as with so many other difficult tasks, the key is to understand the big picture and break the task up. Using your pen or pencil (see #1 above), mark off the key conventional elements of the text (see #3 above) and any other important features you notice at a glance. Then, read the introduction and conclusion. Next, read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. If that doesn’t give you the main idea of each paragraph, keep reading from the outside in until you get it. Write down the main points of these sections in the margins, on Post-its, or in your notes. This focused reading and writing will help you keep track of the main ideas of the whole article or essay or chapter, and when you see what you have written, you may be able to understand the work at a deeper level simply by imagining the connections between your annotations.
- Good readers are alert to other rhetorical features, like tone, purpose, audience, and context. Once you have the main ideas of your text at least partly understood and written down, then you can start to appreciate these other features, which are the subject of the next chapter, “How to Read Rhetorically.”
Do Quick Research
As you read, you might run into ideas, words, or phrases you don’t understand, or the text might refer to people, places, or events you’re unfamiliar with. It’s tempting to skip over those and keep reading, and sometimes that actually works. But keep in mind that when you read something written by a professional writer or academic, they’ve written with such precision that every word carries meaning and contributes to the whole. Therefore, skipping over words or ideas could change the meaning of the text or leave the meaning incomplete.
When you’re reading and come to words and ideas you’re unfamiliar with, you may want to stop and take a moment to do a bit of quick research. Google is a great tool for this—plug in the idea or word and see what comes up. Keep on digging until you have an answer, and then, to help retain the information, take a minute to write a note about it.
This chapter contains material from “The Word on College Reading and Writing” by Monique Babin, Carol Burnell, Susan Pesznecker, Nicole Rosevear, Jaime Wood, OpenOregon Educational Resources, Higher Education Coordination Commission: Office of Community Colleges and Workforce Development is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
2.2 How to Read Effectively by Yvonne Bruce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.