Essay Guide

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You, the reader

Becoming a reader

Just as writing at university is different from other sorts of writing so reading academic texts is different from reading magazines, novels or newspapers. Just because we can read one type of text, we assume we can quite easily read another. However, reading certain sorts of books is a skill that we need to learn and improve on through regular practice.

Readers do it every day

One way to become a regular and confident writer at university was to do a little bit of writing every day. You can make yourself into a regular and confident reader at university in exactly the same way. Spend 15-20 minutes every day reading something from one of your course books or from an academic journal. This will help you become a more practiced reader. You’ll get used to the way that academic books and articles are written – which, in turn, will help you with your own essay writing. If there are words or expressions you don’t know, write them down and look them up. Next time you encounter them you won’t be fazed.

Reading & concentrating

Academic texts can be written in a dense style and in unfamiliar language. Books that are not aimed specifically at undergraduates or are not introducing a subject often assume that readers will already have a substantial amount of knowledge about the particular subject. This means they don’t always spell things out directly which, in turn, means that reading them requires a greater degree of concentration. You may discover that you are reading much more slowly than when you read a magazine or a novel or a newspaper. You may find that you have to read a passage several times before you can grasp its full meaning and implications. Don’t worry – this is quite normal!

Making time & space to read 1: right place, right time

Identify times and places for reading when you won’t be interrupted. The library may not be the best place – even in supposedly ‘quiet areas’ there are too many distractions with people wandering in and out or your best mate holding up a piece of paper saying ‘Fancy a coffee?’ Libraries are usually stuffy places and likely to send you to sleep after about half an hour or so. And many modern libraries seemed to be deliberately designed to make quiet, individual study impossible.

Try to work out when your best time for reading is – when do you feel freshest, at your most receptive? Some people work best very early in the morning, others last thing at night – everyone is different so try and find out what works best for you. To read well you need to be comfortable but not so comfortable that you fall asleep. Before you start reading, make sure you have everything else you need: drink, snacks, pens and paper for taking notes, dictionaries for looking things up.

And, last but not least, turn off your mobile and put it out of sight.

Making time & space to read 2: time chunks

Don’t sit down at nine a.m. on Tuesday morning and decide you are not getting up until you’ve finished book X. Read for no more than half an hour to an hour at a time and take plenty of breaks to give yourself time to think about and take in what you’ve read. Break your reading up into bite size chunks – only you can decide what’s the right size for you, and it may well vary depending on the nature of what you are reading. Reading through a collection of poetry may not take so long as reading through a book of criticism about that collection. You can decide that a chunk is 30 minutes or six pages – it’s entirely up to you.

Each time you come to the end of a chunk, put down the book and think about what you’ve just read. Ask yourself questions about it and write the answers down. Do you understand it? What are the key ideas? What do you know that you didn’t know before? How does it relate to what you read about the same subject last week? Do the two books contradict or complement each other? Are there any words you need to look up? Is it relevant to your essay title? What notes do you need to make, if any?

This is a very important part of reading at university and will help you become an active reader. The point of reading is not just to slog through it and cross another book off the list but also to learn how to think about your subject.