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How to Read Hard Stuff


The kinds of scholarly sources that you will need to use for college research projects can be hard to read. Most are written by subject matter experts for expert audiences who are accustomed to reading dense content. You may encounter words, terms, and concepts that you have never seen before. But don’t be intimidated. You can read tough documents by using these simple tricks.


Start with the abstract.

Most scholarly articles, book chapters, and books come with “abstracts.” These are short -type versions of the larger texts, usually just about a paragraph long. They tend to follow certain conventions and should tell you what the source is about (topic/thesis), what kind of source it is (original research, commentary, analysis, etc), and what the main points and conclusions are. Read abstracts to find out if sources are relevant to your research. It will help you eliminate the ones that are not and understand the ones that are.


Print your sources.

Now that you have weeded out irrelevant sources, print the good ones. Physically working with paper versions of your sources allows you to interact with them: write questions and comments in the margins, highlight important points, label types of information like definitions, dates, statistics, and important quotes, and tab useful sections. Use different colored pens, highlighters, and Post-It notes to make it easy to find information that you want to use for your research.


Take multiple “passes” at the text.

Don’t expect to just sit down and read scholarly work like an article in magazine. Be patient and plan to go over it in at least four passes.

  • Pass #1: Scan. The first time you read the source, read the title, the abstract, and any headings. The purpose of this pass is to set up a “mental template” of what to expect from the document. Notice how it is organized. Does it have specific sections, tables, graphics, headings, subheadings? Do not stop if you see a word/term/concept that you do not know. Move quickly through the document.

  • Pass #2. Skim. The next time you read the source, read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Continue to move quickly through the document. If you see a word/term/concept that you do not know, circle it, but do not stop.

  • Pass #3. Mark-up. This time, read the whole thing, but keep up your pace—try not to stop if you don’t understand something. Get out your pens, highlighters, Post-Its, and dictionary. Look up the words/terms/concepts that you have noted in the previous pass and write short definitions in the margins or on the backs of pages. Create your own conventions like using a yellow highlighter for statistics and a green one for names. Don’t be afraid to draw pictures, arrows, boxes, circles.

  • Pass #4. Magic. Read the source. Be amazed at how well you understand this previously mysterious material. Continue to write on it, but now imagine yourself having a conversation with the author. Ask questions. Challenge assertions. Offer opinions.

Congratulations! You are ready to use this source.
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