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Reading and writing

The purpose of written assignments in higher education is for you to use what you have read and learned and independently write your own text. One of the ways in which you create your own text is by restructuring elements from texts written by others. Reading while writing implies reading from the perspective of a research question and actively using what you read to develop your own analyses and argumentation. Through the process of reading you collect material that you can use in your own writing.

Remember that the material you use is taken out of its original context. When you refer to or cite another text, you make it your own. You are responsible for everything in your text. But, you cannot simply appropriate other people’s thoughts and writings as if they were your own. You must distinguish clearly between your own ideas, paraphrases (indirect quotations) and direct quotations. In other words, you need to master basic citation techniques.

Read your own text and those of others

  • When writing a thesis, it is important to read it through many times. Be critical, and ask your own text the same questions you would ask others: What is the point I want to make here? Is the research question clear? Does the text provide an answer?
  • As with other texts, it is often a good idea occasionally to put the text aside for a while, and return to have a new look at it. Is anything unclear? Is it entirely clear to the reader what I am investigating, what I want to demonstrate and/or argue in favour of, which ideas are mine and which are others’, etc?
  • Read your text out loud. This will help you discover problems your readers might encounter. Are the sentences too long? Is the text repetitive? One can easily get lost in details when looking at a text; hearing the sound of it may give you ideas for improvements.
  • Have other people read and comment on your text. Why not both ask fellow students and someone who is not familiar with your topic and terminology? They might discover ambiguities that you are not aware of. When you and your fellow students read each other’s texts, you learn and find inspiration, and may also become aware of weaknesses and mistakes in other texts that you want to avoid in your own. Thus, swapping texts can be useful for both the reader and the one whose text is read.

Keeping track of what you have read

When reading a text, you may sometimes think: “That was interesting. I didn’t know about that – I’ll have to remember it.” How can you make use of such flashes of insight? This section contains some advice about taking notes and other ways of combining reading and writing in your work.

Taking notes

    • Make notes of what you are reading in a notebook or in a document on your computer. This will result in better and more informative notes than scribbling in the margins. It can also be useful to write up your notes into short summaries of what you have read.
    • Another active reading-technique is to add keywords, notes and underlinings to the actual text. A text that is heavily underlined might however give a false appearance of thoroug analysis. Underlining fragments of a text is easy. Extracting key pieces of information and putting the information into a logical order requires a lot more work, but the benefits of doing so are far greater.
    • You can highlight sections of text and make notes in the margins. Note: Do NOT write notes or highlight text in library books!
    • Try to get hold of the main message of a text, its argumentation and its context. You should make as few marks and notes as possible and keep in mind the purpose of your reading: Are you planning to appropriate a text’s contents and arguments wholesale, will you use parts of the text in connection with something else you are writing, or are you reading for an exam?
    • Do not start underlining and taking notes until you have read through the text, or at least until you have read enough to understand the general direction and subject matter. (Cf. Ways of reading). If you get involved in the details too soon, it can be difficult to understand the text as a whole. Mark and underline passages where the authors gather their arguments or where the main points are most clearly expressed.
    • Adopt a consistent policy on the symbols you use for highlighting, to mark, for example, importance. Examples of marks and symbols include underlining, double underlining, circles around words or phrases, exclamation marks and crosses. Systematic highlighting will save you time finding key points in the text later.

Note: You may change your mind about the most important aspects of a text. The first time you work with a difficult text about a new topic, you may in fact simply be guessing what is important in the text. Be open-minded when you revisit the text, you might have overlooked something important the first time – perhaps even the most important point in the text.

Repetition

Rereading a text will help you remember it better and understand the contents more thoroughly. If you are rereading to understand a text better, reread it as soon as possible. In this case it is important to understand the text as a whole, which can only be acheived by going back and forth through the text, working out how the various parts relate to each other. When first reading a text, we tend only to see its parts. Rereading helps us understand how these parts fit together.

While writing it may be necessary to return to a text because your understanding or opinion of it has changed. Perhaps you understand the argumentation better after reading something else? Perhaps new questions have come up in your own discussion? Perhaps the text can be useful to you in a different way than you first anticipated, because you have rephrased your research question.

Writing a summary

The idea of writing summaries while reading is to provide a tool for repetition. Highlight the main features of the text’s argumentation and structure. Your summary should be accurate and true to the text in question. Present the issues and arguments contained in a text on the text’s own premises. A summary should be neutral – this is not the place to apply your own research questions to the contents of the text or to criticise it – but you should not refrain from rephrasing and saying things in your own words. When writing summaries, aim to reproduce the authors’ claims and arguments in such a way that they might say: “Yes, that was what I meant.”

Last updated: July 8, 2013

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