Essay Guide

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How to read: other techniques

Skimming, scanning & studying

Another way to think about reading is in terms of different levels of intensity and speed.

Skimming means looking through something very quickly to find out if there’s anything relevant.

Scanning means that you know what you want and so are looking for specific information. Both skimming and scanning can be done relatively quickly.

Studying means that you’ve identified that a particular passage is relevant and are reading it carefully and systematically, taking notes and making sure you’ve grasped it

What is it & who is it for? 1: style & access

Ask yourself these questions about everything you read and you’ll be better prepared for reading. If the answers to these questions are ‘a paper from a scientific journal written for other specialists’ then you can expect to find that what you read will be quite hard to follow. The writer will assume that her readers already have extensive knowledge of the subject. This may mean that the paper is not the best thing you could read as part of researching your essay.

If the answers to these questions are ‘an introduction to the subject aimed at undergraduates and interested general readers’ then you can expect to find that what you read will be written in an accessible style and will cover fundamental concepts in the subject.

What is it & who is it for? 2: layout & usefulness

Different types of written materials are structured in different ways. They have different ‘layouts’. Understanding this can help when you are trying to decide how useful something is. Here are some examples:

Academic Articles
Articles in journals are usually prefaced by an abstract i.e. a short outline of what the article is about. Reading the abstract instead of ploughing through the whole article can save you a lot of time.

Newspaper Articles
Newspapers contain different types of articles that are structured in different ways. News articles put the important points first and flesh them out later. Opinion articles present a point of view so key information is usually contained in the introductory and concluding paragraphs. Feature articles provide in-depth background about a subject. They usually begin with a scene-setting paragraph and put the most important information in the main body of the article.

Thinking about and understanding the layout of a particular piece of written material can help you extract what you need more efficiently.

What do I want to know?

First, ask yourself: ‘what do I want to know after I’ve read this book or article’? You can even make a sort of shopping list of things you want to find out. Then ask yourself: ‘does this book or article meet my needs?’

Primary & secondary texts

This is an idea that comes from literary studies and is good way of thinking about differences between books and how you need to read them. A typical English Literature essay might ask you to take one of Shakespeare’s plays and relate it to Renaissance ideas about kingship. For this essay, the play would be your primary text and books about the play and about ideas of kingship would be your secondary texts.

This distinction can be applied to other subjects. Imagine you are writing a sports science essay which asks you to compare the effectiveness of different strategies for getting people to start taking exercise and go on taking exercise. For this essay, the different strategies would be your primary texts and different views of their effectiveness – for and against – would be your secondary texts.

In both examples, the primary texts are the ones you need to read and understand in detail. With the secondary texts you can be more selective. You probably don’t need to read a huge book called Ideas of Kingship in the Renaissance but you do need to read Chapter six on ‘Kingship in Elizabethan Drama’.