The Importance of Reading Closely by Kayla Dean

posted Apr 5, 2017, 5:34 PM by Writing Center
I once had a professor tell me that I should never read a book without a pen in my hand. This works pretty well for me; English majors annotate obsessively. Just one look at my collection of Virginia Woolf novels and you’d know that I had to write a paper about them afterwards.

But if you’re a current composition student (one who’s not required to read To The Lighthouse) you probably get tired of your professors teaching you how to annotate yet again. Besides, you learned this skill in high school, right? Just throw in a random highlight here or there and circle a word you don’t know. That will get you the daily points. Yet this is only a small part of what annotating can do. Your professors notice if you haven’t put in the sincere time and effort to read a piece carefully. Additionally, you shortchange yourself the ability to substantively learn good study skills.

Something I always see with my composition students is that they have less to say if they have not annotated the piece I ask them to read before class. Does this mean that without scribbling all over what you read that you can’t understand it? Not necessarily. But here’s the reason that annotating is absolutely vital to a good writing practice in your composition course: technology is distracting and it’s all too easy to get pulled away from your reading if there’s nothing holding you to the page.

We get it over in the Writing Center: it’s not always easy to read what’s required for your classes when there’s so much distraction in every place imaginable. But there are a few life hacks that actually do make your papers stronger. First, annotate as you read, but take a second pass if you don’t feel like you got everything. Also, look for those little compact paragraphs that summarize the whole piece. Oftentimes, a writer will put their point earlier in the text. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t look like a traditional thesis. It may not be at the end of the first paragraph, but it will usually tell you what you need to know to read a piece effectively.

Also, take some time to look at the rhetorical strategies in the text. How do they start their paragraphs? Do they use long sentences or short ones? Oh, and what surprised you about the piece? Did you like/dislike the way that the author presented the information? Summarize each paragraph if this last question poses some difficulty for you.

All of this stuff matters. When it comes to your own writing, you will have to make the same decisions.

Yes, we know that you know how to do basic reading. But annotating lets you actually slow down and understand what the writer wants to say. Skipping this step often means that we miss out on key moves in the text. That’s at least part of the reason why you freeze up when your professor asks a question during discussion. If you know the text (or at least have some notes to remind you what you read about), then coming up with an answer suddenly doesn’t seem quite as difficult.

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