How to Read

CBS Library's writing consultant Thomas Basbøll gives study advice in a series of 5 short articles.


Student reading and taking notes

What is the author trying to say? How does the author know? These two questions should guide your reading of an academic paper. Try to understand not only what the author means but how the author came to believe it. What sort of research has the author done? What sorts of experiences inform their view of the world? What would you have to do to challenge them? Getting clear about these things will make your reading easier and more interesting.

Remember that a paper is usually divided into paragraphs, which are grouped into sections. You can ask the two questions of the whole paper, the sections, and each individual paragraph. In fact, paragraphs are a useful way to structure your attention to the paper. Each paragraph should take about a minute to read and you should be able to identify a straightforward claim in it. You should also get a good sense of the author’s reasons for believing it.

When identifying the central claim of the paragraph, try, if possible, to pick one of the sentences it is made up of. It should be a nice, simple, declarative sentence that asserts something boldly. Ideally, you will be able to imagine the fact it is claiming to be true. It may be a bit abstract (like a diagram, or a relationship between two scholars) but you should be able to “see” it in your “mind’s eye”. For each paragraph, either find or write a sentence that evokes this image for you.

Then ask yourself why the author thinks the claim is true. Did the author simply read a lot of other texts? Make a note of the sources. Later, you can go and find some of them in a library. Did the author do a formal, scientific study, collecting data and analyzing it to reach a conclusion? Make a note of their methods. Try to imagine carrying them out yourself. Perhaps the author just thought a great deal about it and the paragraph presents their reasoning, their thought process. Does it make sense to you? Is the argument compelling?

Whatever you do, remember to take your time. Read slowly and deliberately, as though every word counts. Imagine that the writer chose it carefully. Try to figure out why.

Interested in more?

Read more at my blog called Inframethodology

Other articles in the series

The page was last edited by: CBS Library // 11/20/2019