Research hacks #7: Read everything, but not in the same way

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

If one thing is non-negotiable about academic research in the arts and humanities, it is that there will be a lot of reading. In fact, there will almost certainly be too much reading, so you’d better have a strategy to cope with the bibliographical tsunami headed your way.

You can’t read every word that has been written about your subject in the same way, or ponder every word with the same depth, so you need to develop different reading strategies for different types of text. Here are four different strategies to get you going.

Read everything, but not in the same way

  • Your key primary texts. Read them slowly and often. Know them and own them. This is where the bulk of your reading time needs to go. Be familiar with your primary texts like old friends. Get to the point where you can tell if a secondary source is treating the primary text with respect or not. Get to the point where you can read the argument of a secondary article and say “hey, what about that bit in the primary text where…”. Get to the point where you have something to say in your own voice about the primary text: your reading, your take on what it is saying, how it all fits together and what the important bits are.
  • Unknown secondary texts. These are texts that might end up playing a big role in your argument and might not, but you’re not sure yet. Try to get a quick sense of how useful an article or book will by:
    • reading the table of contents (of a book) or the abstract (of an article).
    • reading the introduction and conclusion to get a sense of the overall argument.
    • reading the first sentence of each paragraph in a section or chapter you think might be important.
    • if you are working with electronic copies of your texts: searching for key words that are important to your argument.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

By this point you should have a good sense of whether the article or book you are reading will be a key secondary text or an unimportant secondary text.

  • Your key secondary texts. These are the books and/or articles with which you will engage most thoroughly in your writing, upon which you will rest some of your own argument, or against which you will define your own position.
    • Read and weigh every word, but not with the same obsessive frequency with which you keep coming back to your primary texts.
    • Identify the key passages you want to lean on or with which you want to take issue, and read them forensically, making sure you understand their every little twist and turn, and the weight and implication of every word. But don’t then forget about the rest of the book, as if these purple passages existed in splendid isolation. That’s called proof-texting and its sloppy workmanship.
    • If you are setting your own position in contradistinction to a particular secondary text then read against yourself. In other words, try to prove that you are misunderstanding the secondary text. If you can’t prove yourself wrong, then chances are your argument is good. If you can, you’re probably attacking a straw man and need either to strengthen your argument or abandon it.
  • Other secondary texts.
    • Discern and note their main arguments, so that you will know whether you need to come back to them later if your own approach changes.
    • It’s OK not to read every word of these texts. It really is.
    • Invest your precious time in mastering your primary texts and coming to the point where you know your key secondary texts well enough that no-one could accuse you of attacking a straw man.

One last word. Don’t trust reviews to tell you if a book is worth reading. Book reviews are peculiar beasts that have an annoying habit of focusing on details marginal to the book’s main concerns, or missing out on important arguments in the book. Read them, but don’t rely on them alone.

What strategies and tips do you have for managing different sorts of reading?
CC Image courtesy of RJ on Flickr.

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