When we look at a text, we often see an engaging narrative spinning a cobweb of intrigue and plot. That is a sensible approach to enjoying a book. But when the essay is due at 7:30am the next day and it’s already almost 9pm, sensible won’t cut it! Here’s my system for approaching a paper, straight from a recent graduate’s experience.
Don’t Read – Filter!
First thing you need to realize is, reading an academic article and taking effective notes is not really about reading, but organization and analysis. I’ll clue you on a little secret – scholars love to write! And they love being overly verbose – good 90% of the text is really only a “narrative glue” that links the important bits of information. It’s your job it strip it off! Each paragraph (or a sequence of paragraphs) usually is trying to communicate a single idea; somewhere in the wall of text, there is one short sentence that summarizes the whole point. You simply need to find it; and if you can’t find it, write your own! Next step is to organize and group these bits together, so that similar (or contradictory!) ideas are readily next to each other. As you read more articles, keep adding and expanding to the list, and feel free to bold or underline key words as well.
Don’t Write – Assemble!
When you are done with all your material, you will have a neat list of readily citable quotes (or paraphrases) grouped into common themes and motifs. These are your essay’s building blocks. Now it’s time to think – what is all of this telling you? What kind of themes are recurring throughout all your sources? Maybe there are points multiple authors disagree on worth exploring? What arguments can you make from your list? Many scholars shun the traditional “5 paragraph essay” format, but personally I find it a good starting point. So do that – devise a question you can pose in your introduction, and think of an answer using just the quotes from your list. Now divide all your chosen quotes into three groups – your three core arguments. In your introduction, give an overview of the topic, present your question, and propose the answer, briefly outlining what your three arguments will be. Then, dedicate three sections of your paper to each argument, making liberal use of your quotes. In your conclusion, quickly restate your answer and how the three arguments support it. And always, always end with some kind of interesting thought, or perhaps an open-ended question, that will leave your reader wondering, and wanting to explore the topic even more.
…and you’re done!
Perhaps you have heard some of these study tips before, but I wanted to briefly outline the whole process from start to finish. Like you, I have looked at many different ways to approach a paper, from “sit down and write” to “hanging elaborate postit notes all over my walls.” In the end, I slowly settled on this simple, yet very efficient system. And not to brag, but my grades certainly can vouch for its effectiveness!