Find out Whodunit, or: How to Read an Academic Text

At the library

At the library.
Photo: Magnus Hjalmarsson, © Uppsala universitetsbibliotek 2014

No matter what you are studying, as a student you know for sure that you will be doing a lot of reading during your time at the university. You will be reading books, articles, assignment instructions, essays… the list goes on.

Reading an academic text is not like reading a novel. When reading an academic text you should start by trying to get an overview and understand the main point of the text.

Reading an academic text is not like reading a novel

When reading a novel, most of us start from the very beginning and read it through to the end (and then there are a few who skip to ending to find out what will happen). An academic text, however, is not meant to be read word by word, from beginning to end. In fact, it is much easier to read an academic text if you find out from the beginning whodunit, to borrow a metaphor from detective fiction. In other words, the very first thing you should figure out when reading an academic text is what the purpose, or central idea, of the text is.

Get an idea of the content

When you pick up a scholarly article or book, start by considering what title means. What expectations on the content do you get from reading the title? Then read the blurb on the backside (if it is a book) or read the abstract if it is an article. The abstract should give you a fair idea of the main purpose of the article and of the research project and also an overview of the method and main findings of the project.

At this point you should have a fair idea of what the article or book is about. If it is a book, it is now time to look at the table of contents. This will give you more specific information about the text. If it is an article you are reading, go through the text and read the subheadings and look at the pictures, charts, and tables. If you are reading a book, it is usually easier to do this chapter by chapter. Think of the subheadings as a road map to the book or article. They will help you navigate through the text so that you don’t get lost along the way.

Yes, you heard me right. You don’t actually have to read the whole thing word by word

Decide what to read in detail

When you have gotten this far, you will have a good idea of what the book or article is about. It is now time to decide which parts of the text you need to read in detail and which parts you could skim. Yes, you heard me right. You don’t actually have to read the whole thing word by word. Which parts you read in detail depend on why you are reading this particular text. However, it is always a good idea to read the introduction thoroughly and if there is a separate discussion section you should consider reading this thoroughly, as well. When reading a detective novel you don’t want to find out who the culprit is until the very end, in an academic text, however, you should figure out what the main idea of the text is as soon as you start reading.

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