Coming up with sources for research papers isn’t as difficult as it once was, thanks to the nearly magical properties of the Library’s 200 some-odd databases. You can find hundreds of articles and e-books on your topic while you sit at home in your pjs eating ice cream–an activity definitely frowned upon in the library.
Once you have all those resources, though, how do you winnow them down to the 10 or 20 needed for your paper? The best approach is always to have a clear idea of your paper’s purpose and focus and then choose the sources that fit best, but what if you’re writing a more exploratory paper? The sources themselves in this type of inductive adventure give rise to the paper’s focus and even structure–once you’ve determined what’s worthwhile and what’s not.
Before we talk about using sources, then, let’s talk about consuming them. One of the skills every grad student should develop and hone throughout the educational career is the ability to read just about anything and be able to take away the salient or significant information. The ability to read well should be coupled with the ability to read quickly.
The difficulty lies in the variety of ways you can read: every field of study has its own rules for encoding textual information for its particular audience. That means the way you read will change based on context, your purpose, the field’s conventions, and so on. There is hope, however. While ferreting out the important information from differently organized sources might sound daunting, chances are you’ve already mastered some of the techniques that help you decide when to read the first paragraph, when to read the first sentence, and when to skip to the end. The more aware you are of what you do when you shift reading strategies, the more quickly you can get what you want from a particular reading. So to help you get that metacognitive awareness (thinking about your thinking), question what you’re reading for its type, and not just its content (The questions to ask yourself as you read to improve comprehension, speed, and discernment also help shape what you incorporate when you write).
- Glance over the format. What does this LOOK LIKE it could be (report, journal article, newspaper article, magazine article, trade article, advertisement, book review, critique)?
- Based on the format, what information should be present, and where should it be, or where would it USUALLY be?
- What ideas does the title reflect? How many contexts can this be taken in? What should be the main idea of the whole text according to this title?
- How deeply must this article be explored? Can I just scan for the elements identified for the title, or should I reflect on HOW the author expresses himself/proves his point?
- What reasoning type(s) is used, and how valid is it for this format, information, purpose, field, so forth?
- What information needs to be recorded for later? How can I best do that (margins, annotated bibliography, Endnote, abstracts, etc)?
- How do I alter my reading according to the text? How can I continue to develop my reading skills according to the needs of my field, my own background knowledge and experience, and my opportunities?
Using these questions to approach your academic reading in a systematic and analytical way can take a lot of the frustration out of the activity, and help you build background knowledge about what writing conventions work well in your field. You’ll soon begin to recognize patterns in the sources you consume, and these patterns will inform your own writing as you move from lit consumer to lit producer.