How To Read Smart

Reading lists can be daunting, especially those 400 page books and long, potentially very dull articles.   Equally, starting a paper or a thesis can seem like embarking upon Mt Kilimanjaro  with just a woolly hat and a broken compass – and no mountaineering experience. How is a student to find time to eat let alone sleep with the mountains of books and articles to read, digest and cite. The trick is not to read fast but to read smart.

Read with a purpose

It is inefficient to just dive straight into a text and hope you find something that you need. You should condition your reading by first identifying what you want to get out of the text.  Do you want a thorough understanding of the paper or just an overview of the topic? Are you looking for data, examples, opinions? Do you need to verify something you read elsewhere? Only after  identifying what you are reading for should you approach the text. As you go along you may discover that you can get more out of the text, but you should always keep in mind your purpose. To remember, here’s a tip: write your purpose on a Post-it and stick it on the side of your computer screen, e.g. To determine how changing CO2 concentrations affect flowering plants

Read Strategically

Read the abstract first! Check it if relevant to your purpose. Then, before you begin you should critically evaluate the text itself. The CRAP test video shows how to do this:

You do not need to treat an academic text like a novel; you won’t spoil the ending if you jump to the end.

Identify the Thesis
Usually the first task is to identify the position of the author: the claim, thesis, or argument. This is (almost) always  in the introduction and the conclusion. If it is relevant, then you can decide if you want to read further. It might be as dull as ditchwater, but persevere it holds nuggets of useful facts.

Don’t be Afraid to Stop!
If you have got what you need, or if you discover that the text is not so useful after all, just move on, either to a different text or a different part of the text.

Reading For Specific Information
Remember headings are your friends! This is obvious but it can save you a lot of time. Again, with your purpose in mind, do not be afraid to jump to the section that sounds like it includes the information you need. For example, if you are reading to get an overview of the literature on a topic, then you may want to read just the literature review. Or if you are looking for specific data, you could just jump to the results.

Utilize the References
Searching for literature can become time consuming and frustrating.  You can save time researching a topic by using the bibliography of a good article you have found.  With luck, that text will be a gateway into several other useful texts and each of those, several others. This is a great way to get a sense of which texts are central to a topic. If the same author or article keeps cropping up in several other texts then you can be fairly sure that it is something you need to read.  You may also like to check whether the text you are reading has been cited by other scholars.   This will potentially lead you to other useful texts, but will also tell you whether that text and its ideas are widely known.

Do not stop reading and run for the dictionary every time you encounter an unknown word in the text. Read the paragraph and the page around the mystery word. You may be able to deduce the meaning from the context,  or perhaps decide that that word  is unimportant to your reading purpose. Only look up the word if you decide that understanding the unknown word is necessary for your reading purpose.

Read Critically

When reading any part of the paper you must always remain critical. Never take the author’s words as some kind of biblical truth. It is a good idea to keep some questions in mind to help you keep a scholarly distance from the text. Consider whether the writer(s)’s arguments are strong:  What evidence do they give for their claims? Is it convincing? What are the counter arguments? Do they acknowledge  and successfully refute them? Does it contradict or confirm conventional wisdom?

Take Effective Notes

Write Notes as You Read
Taking effective notes saves time in the long run.. Nobody’s memory is that good they can remember everything, and this difficulty exponentially increases with each additional text you read. Therefore you will save  time if you take notes as you go along, the author, the source, the page number for your referencing later). I cannot tell you what to do, but I can tell you what I know from experience: are few things in life more frustrating  than spending several fruitless hours searching for a quote you read earlier.  

Here is a video showing you how to take particularly thorough notes. Remember that it is not necessary to read every text like this:   

Use your own words
Notes are not only a tool for information recall; they help you understand what you are reading. Copying and pasting large chunks of text may seem like a fast way to make large quantities of notes but won’t help you understand and absorb what you are reading.  However, if you explain the thesis or a claim of a text in your own words then it ensures that you understand and remember it. You may also want to make a note of the evidence used: interesting details, statistics figures, concepts, quotes, counter arguments. .  It is also a good idea to try to take notes in shortened form and only the information that you need (for your purpose). You don’t want to end up with notes the same size as the text you are reading!

Make notes of  connections and criticisms
In the same way that you may not remember everything you have read, you may also forget what you were thinking when you read a text. Writing down your critique of the text, or any problems you have identified will help you remember, clarify and refine your criticism. You make also want to note any connections with anything else you have read on the topic.

The above does not mean you should not make a note of good quotes. But remember that direct quotes should generally only be used when the wording is important or particularly elegant or well phrased. A long and unnecessary block quote may indicate that a student does not understand the topic they are writing about.  However, it is vital to remember that when using someone else’s ideas you must cite them, even if you don’t directly quote them.  If you are unsure about  how to do this, watch this Harvard tutorial on referencing and this one on paraphrasing.

Organise your notes

Finally, there is no point making notes that you can’t understand. Ideally you  should  make notes that help you organise your thoughts, that are easily understandable and easily accessible. To learn how,  view this excellent guide to advanced note taking from the Writing Centre’s Researcher in Chief, Tiffanie Bui.

Recommended Websites
Reading University, perhaps unsurprisingly provide a thorough guide to reading.
Northumbria University also provides a very readable reading-guide.


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