The art of super-skimming

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If you're working on a thesis or dissertation (or some other writing project that is galactic in scale), chances are you're spending more time reading than actually writing. When it comes to academic writing, some people find that research is the single most time-consuming part of the process. So, if you're trying to streamline your writing process, you might start by training yourself to read more efficiently. 

While I was in graduate school, I developed a reading method that I like to call "super-skimming." It came in handy when I had 1,000 pages of assigned reading per week, plus two classes of my own to prepare for, plus stacks of student essays to grade. (Not to mention that I had to find time to eat two meals a day and sleep five hours a night.) I'll outline the process that works for me, but in the comments section below, I'd love to hear your own tips and strategies for reading quickly.

1. Size up what you're reading.  Ask yourself questions about the author, text, and context. This way, you can process what you read more quickly and accurately.

  • What do you already know about the author and his/her work? Are you prepared to agree or disagree, to be impressed or nonplussed? If the author is not widely considered an authority on her topic, treat her work with caution--or consider not using it at all.
  • How recently was the work published? Will you be reading it as an example of the latest in cutting-edge research, or through the retrospective lens of twenty years' experience? 
  • What do you know about others' perspectives on this text? If other scholars have already debunked it, you don't need to waste your reading energies finding the text's flaws. It might, in fact, be more interesting to find something in the text that you can rescue.
  • What is the one main point of the text? You'd be surprised how often even smart readers miss the forest for the trees. Don't wander off to examine the author's sub-claims and contemplate his illustrative anecdotes until you've clarified in your own mind how his argument can be distilled in one sentence. Even famous scholars have to have thesis statements. 

2. Figure out how the text fits with your overall goals. In your work, perhaps you are going to build upon this author's thesis; you'll cite it and then extend it with further evidence in order to make your own unique contribution. Or, perhaps you will try to disprove the author's thesis. Either way, you also want to consider how relevant this text is to your own work. Are you going to deal with this text in one footnote, or will it be the springboard of an entire chapter? These questions will help you to determine how much time to spend with a given text.

3. Determine which sections to read slowly, which to read quickly, and which to skip entirely. Once you've completed Step 2 above, you should be able to decide which chapters or sections of a book or article are most relevant to your own work. I wish I could go back in time and un-read all the chapters I read unnecessarily when I was a graduate student. Use the Abstract, Table of Contents, and transitional sentences (the ones that recap what the author has already said and forecast what she will say next) to figure out what's what in the text you are super-skimming. 

4. Take notes after you've read. Only once you've completed Steps 1, 2, and 3 do you know what's worth writing down (and re-reading later). 

5. Don't type out what you can copy-and-paste. If you need to include an extensive quotation in your notes--the wording is just too precise and perfect for you to paraphrase--try to find an e-version of the text (if that's not what you're using already) so that you can copy-and-paste the quotation into your notes. Of course, be sure to add in quotation marks and citation information so that you don't later mistake this beautifully crafted sentence for your own work.

6. Keep good records; your future self will thank you. The more you research, the more you can personalize your methods. As for me, I've developed some habits that help me to get the most out of every hour I spend in research mode, and help me to avoid duplicating my efforts when I return to a source text later. For example, after I have read a really good source, I like to write a paragraph or two of summary, evaluation, and analysis in a Word document whose title is the title of the source. This method keeps my thoughts organized, and when I revisit each Word document I can add to and correct it. Eventually, I find myself drafting actual paragraphs for my article or chapter, right there in the Word document. 

It's a given that, as long as you're working on a large-scale writing project, you will spend many hours of your life reading. No doubt this work can be tedious. But if you make the best use of every minute and challenge yourself to work efficiently, you'll be amazed how much less painful the process becomes. 

Posted on August 21, 2013 .