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Nothing in logic is accidental
Ludwig Wittgenstein
1889 – 1951
Austrian philosopher

Reading and research series

How to read an essay *

Note: this excellent process can be applied to
books, chapters in books, articles, and all manner of reading.

What is the title?

What does it tell you about what the essay is about?
What do you already know about the subject?
What do you expect the essay to say about it--especially given when it was written and who the author was (see next questions)?

When was the essay written?

Do you know anything about the state of the historical literature on the subject at that time?
If so, what do you expect the essay to say?

Who wrote it? What do you expect him or her to say?

What are the author's credentials, or affiliations?
What are his/her prejudices?
Are you familiar with the authors' other work related to the subject?

Read the essay, marking the information that is crucial to you.
When the text gives you crucial information, mark and note it:

What exactly is the subject?
How does it correspond to the title?
What are the main points--the theses?
What is the evidence that the author gives to sustain the thesis or theses?

What is the factual information that you want to retain?

Is there a good description of something you knew, or did not know, that you want to remember its location. If so, mark it. If for research, make out a research note on it.

Does the author cite some important source that you want to retain for future reference?
If so, mark it. If for research, make out a bibliographic note either now or on reviewing the article for such citations.

Once you have finished the article, reflect on:

What have you learned?
How does it relate to what you already know?
Did you find the argument convincing on its own terms?
Given what you know about the subject, do you think the main point(s) might be correct even if the argument was not convincing?
Can you think of information that makes you doubt the main point(s), even if the essay argued it well?
How does the essay relate to other things you have read--that is, how does it fit in the historical literature?

Make out a summary sheet on the essay

Reading and research series

Reading critically | Pre-reading strategies | SQ3R reading method |
KWL reading method | Marking & underlining | Reading difficult material | Interpretive reading | Reading essays | Reading fiction | Narrator/character types |
Speed and comprehension | Researching on the Internet | Evaluating websites |
Organizing research: computers | Organizing research: note cards

* Adapted with permission
from Professor M. Les Benedict, Department of History, Ohio State University