Reading Critical Sources Effectively
from: The Nature of Writing
Many of us are lazy readers. We avoid reading things that clash with our own beliefs, and we skip material that seems difficult. That’s why we often have a hard time mastering new information. When the going gets tough, our eyes simply glaze over.
Don’t believe me? See if you can read this entire page carefully, without once opening a new tab or visiting Facebook.
If you manage to do so, you’ll learn a few tips about how to read articles and books critically and effectively.
Don’t Cherry Pick
A lot of students skim through articles (books are too long), hoping to find just one or two quotations that prove that they’ve done research. That’s why so many quotations come from the opening one or two pages of an article (or worse, from the abstract!).
Cherry picking quotations leads to confirmation bias: the ideas of others are referenced only if they conform to one’s own perspective. In addition, the original author’s general argument is ignored in favour of a selective engagement with a specific point.
Do your best, then, to understand and discuss the author’s main thesis.
Look it Up
Don’t know a difficult word or concept? Look it up. Google it, use a reference work—do whatever it takes to get to the same level as the author.
What’s the Main Argument?
Find the thesis quickly. Skim through the abstract and opening paragraphs and underline the main point(s). Then make sure you read everything else in relation to the central claim. Does the author make a convincing case?
Skimming is an art. A lot of critical work will be irrelevant to your research, and you don’t want to get bogged down in material that may be interesting, but slows you down.
So learn to read paragraphs as units. Determine quickly what the main point of the paragraph is, and then decide whether it’s immediately relevant. Don’t worry—you can always come back to it once you’ve mastered the more essential parts of the argument.
Master the text by taking notes. Underline, write in the margin, draw pictures, keep a notebook, make an outline—do whatever it takes to make sense of your reading. This will also help you write your essay, as finding the right quotation or reference will be much easier.
One useful strategy is to summarize the text in one or two sentences. This forces you to think about the entire argument. As a bonus, you might even incorporate the summary in your own essay in order to quickly capture the author’s thesis.
Reading strategically can save a lot of time and make writing the essay a more enjoyable experience. If you’ve already summed up the argument and underlined the most quotable passages, incorporating those ideas in your own writing will be a less daunting task.
Above all, think of reading secondary sources as participating in a conversation with others. As we listen attentively, and treat each other with respect, we can all grow and learn together.