As a college student, much of your time will be spent interacting with texts of all types, shapes, sizes, and delivery methods. And, most of the writing you do in college will be based on your response to a text. That means that good writing begins with good reading.
In academic terms, a text is anything that conveys a set of meanings to the person who examines it. You might have thought that texts were limited to written materials, such as books, magazines, newspapers. Those items are indeed texts—but so are movies, paintings, television shows, songs, political cartoons, online materials, advertisements, maps, works of art, even rooms full of people. If we can look at something, explore it, find layers of meaning in it, and draw information and conclusions from it, we’re looking at a text. And while most of advice that follows is specific to written materials, that doesn't mean that you can't extend these concepts to other kinds of texts). How do you become an better reader?
- Be willing to read a text more than once. Really. Any text you are going to write about needs to be read at least two times, and probably three times.
- Learn and practice the skills of effective reading.
- Learn and practice the skills of responding to a text.
- Learn and practice the skills of analyzing a text.
- Take notes. Annotate. Keep a journal.
- Keep reading. Every day. And vary the materials you read: a book, a magazine article, an online blog, etc. Try readings things that are a little challenging. In other words, don’t just vary the subject matter–vary the difficulty, too. Stretch!
Reading effectively means reading in a way that helps you understand, evaluate, and reflect on a written text. As you might guess, these skills are very important to college students. No matter what field you’re going into, you’ll be doing a lot of reading. The more effectively you read, the easier it’ll be, the less time it will take, and the more you’ll enjoy the experience. People who read effectively use a variety of skills and techniques:
- Create an optimal setting for reading. Pick the best time, place, and conditions.
- Create a reading environment that helps decrease distraction. Or, adapt to their reading environment when the perfect environment isn't available.
- Reflect on your experience of reading a text.
- Research or investigate content you don’t fully understand.
- Keep in mind the purpose of your reading. What assignments are associated with this reading? What will your professor expect you to know about this reading?
- Read a text more than once, focusing on different details each time.
All of the skills required for responding to texts and analyzing texts build on the practices of effective reading. If you find yourself having trouble with the next steps, return to these basic skills. Throughout the semester, I encourage you to return to this section to keep these skills fresh in your head.
[A note on 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.]
[Another note on Quick Research: Many of the texts you will be asked to read in college have been read before, and someone, somewhere has probably put there ideas about a text somewhere online. Please refrain from drawing on the ideas you find on websites like Course Hero, Enotes, and Shmoop. Your professors have not assigned the texts they have BECAUSE the answers are on Shmoop; rather, your professors have chosen these texts because these texts are good texts for teaching you how to develop a process for finding your own answers. Your future employers will not hire you based on your ability to Shmoop, and you cannot put Shmoop down as a skill on your résumé; rather, your future employers will want to know YOUR ideas about the new guidelines for widget optimization. Even if you are never required to analyze a poem in your future career, you will have to analyze something. Analyzing the poem is just practice.]