We read for a lot of reasons. Sometimes we read an article because everyone else is reading and citing it. We might read an article or book because what we really wanted wasn’t available at the library (don’t claim you’ve never done it). Hopefully, most of our reading is done because we recognize the importance of the literature, and want to learn how it relates to our own work.
No matter why we read, we do a lot of reading. In our “publish or perish” culture, we are expected to produce manuscripts that include substantial literature reviews. We also have access to truly incredible amounts of information and literature. In order to keep up, it’s understandable that academics do a lot of skimming. When you have ten articles sitting on your desktop and deadlines looming, it can be very tempting to just give them a cursory scan and move on. To be sure, skimming – or scanning – can be a very useful strategy. Yet, as we consume increasing amounts of information on a daily basis, we should not overlook the benefits of a close read.
A “close read” will certainly help you to absorb and understand the content of the text, but it can do more than that. If you read with intention, you can set clear goals for what you would like to accomplish in your reading, and in the process become a better writer. Here are a few suggestions for what to focus on during a close read:
Reverse outline to discern the logic of an argument.
Pay attention to diction and style. For instance, you can go through and highlight every use of jargon. Or, employ a strategy I use with my clients – count the number of words and clauses in each sentence. Are all of the sentences dense? Does the text read as terse? Is there excessive wordiness? Identify variation, if it exists.
Once you have identified a style, determine what you like and don’t like about it. This can include word choice, sentence structure, the degree to which an author uses secondary sources, and so forth. As we remain concerned with the use of academic jargon, a close read enables you to determine what habits academic writers have that you will either want to emulate or avoid.
Close reading is also an essential part of the editing process. An editor should always do a close read of your work, especially if they’re doing a substantive or developmental edit – and in some cases copyediting. You should also be doing a close read of your own work; this is essential for making revisions.
When you are about to power through your reading, slow down and ask yourself, “What will I gain by taking the time to read this thoroughly?” Remain mindful of the benefits of giving more attention to a text, and you’ll discover that your reading and writing will improve.
Do you feel pressure to read quickly? How do you manage that pressure?