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This handout suggests reading, note-taking, and writing strategies for when you need to use reading assignments or sources as the springboard for writing a paper.
Read (or at least skim) all parts of the reading. Sometimes the cover, title, preface, introduction, illustrations, appendices, epilogue, footnotes and “about the author” sections can provide you with valuable information.
Identify the genre of the reading. What kind of a reading is it? (Journal article? Mass media? Novel? Textbook?) Why was it written? Who does the author assume is going to read this work? (Books about politics written for an audience of political scientists, for example, might be very different from books about politics written for the general public, for historians, or for sociologists.)
Consider the author. What do you know or what can you learn about this person? Why did he or she write the book? What sources of information and/or methods did he or she use to gather the information presented in the book?
Guess why your instructor assigned the reading. How does it fit in with other readings, class discussions, major course themes, or the purpose of the class?
Get out a calendar and plan your reading. Get out a calendar and plan your reading. Plot the number of days or hours that it may take you to complete the reading. Be realistic. It may help to read one chapter of the reading and then revise your calendar—some readings take longer than others of a similar length. Visit the Learning Center if you’d like to learn more about scheduling your work or reading more quickly and effectively.
As you read, record your reactions and questions. Any reaction or question is valid, from the specific (“What’s that word mean?”) to the general (“What’s her point?”). Write them down now so that you’ll remember them later. These reactions and questions can serve as material for class discussion, or they can be the jumping off point for brainstorming a paper.
Read with a friend. Find someone else who is reading the same book. Set reading goals together and plan to share your reactions to sections of the reading before class, after class, over e-mail, and so on.
Visit your instructor during office hours to discuss the reading. Your instructor will set aside hours when he or she will be available to meet with students. This is a great time to talk about the reading, ask questions, share your reactions, and get to know your instructor. You can do this with a friend or in a small group as well.
Think about what is missing in the reading. Issues, events or ideas that are missing, left out, avoided, or not discussed/addressed in the book might be important. Thinking about these omissions can give you a critical perspective on the reading by showing you what the author (consciously or unconsciously) doesn’t want to deal with.
If you know you will have to answer a particular question in response to the reading, read with that question in mind. Sometimes faculty will give you essay questions in advance. As you read the text, refer back to those questions and think about your emerging answers to them.
Write as you read. Record your reactions informally and briefly after you’ve read for a while. When you’re done reading a section, write for five minutes to capture your personal thoughts, reactions, and questions as you go along.
Keep your notes with your book. Tuck a few sheets of paper or a notepad inside the book to record your ideas as you read.
Share your informal writing with a friend. Trade notes/questions/reactions to the book. Write five-minute responses to one another about the reading. This can be done by e-mail.
Draw while you read. Drawing pictures, maps or diagrams of relationships or important issues that you see emerging from the reading can help you understand them. Be willing to revise or redraw the map as you read.
React to the whole reading. Take twenty minutes to record your reactions to the reading as a whole. (Return to the reading strategies list to get you started if you need to.) Don’t be afraid to guess, hypothesize, or follow a tangent.
Reread the writing assignment. The Writing Center has a useful handout on how to read assignments that may help.
Get out a calendar and schedule the time you will need to write your paper. Working backwards from the due date, plot a timeline for producing the paper. Include time for at least one rough draft and one chance to receive feedback from others (a friend, your teaching assistant, your professor, the Writing Center, etc.) before turning it in.
Plan your research and think about citation. If the assignment requires library research, clarify a strategy for collecting and citing sources as you research and write. Be sure to cite any quoted information or information that was not generated by your own analysis. Your instructor can answer all of your questions about this important step.
Write a draft, preferably a few days before the paper is due. Instructors can usually tell the difference between papers that have been carefully drafted and revised and papers that have been hurriedly written the night before they are due. Papers written the night before often receive disappointing grades.
Get feedback from at least one person, and preferably several people, before you finalize your draft. When possible, give your readers a copy of the assignment, too. E-mail can make this process easier. See the Writing Center handout on feedback.
Proofread your paper to catch errors before handing it in. Taking the time to spell-check and proofread will make your paper easier to read and show your reader that you cared about the assignment. The Writing Center handout on proofreading may help.
Read all of your instructor’s comments. Assess your strengths and weaknesses in completing this reading/writing assignment. Plan what adjustments you’ll make in the process for the next reading/writing assignment you will undertake. It may help to save all of your old papers so that you can refer back to them and look for patterns in your instructor’s comments. You may also want to keep a small notebook for your own assessment—writing down that you didn’t leave ample time for revision on one paper, for example, may help you remember to schedule your time more effectively for the next paper.
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