Effective reading is the source of better writing

AcWriChatAccording to the University of Richmond Writing Center, “Reading and writing are very closely related. If a writer doesn’t understand the material they are reading, chances are they will not be able to write about it successfully.” This premise was the foundation of our May 15th AcWriChat discussion on Twitter where we discussed effective reading habits of academics.

Event participants, Danielle Apfelbaum, Marc A. Ouellette, and Sonal A. Mehta added personal perspective to the discussion. During the TweetChat event we asked about ways to make reading efforts more effective, strategies to improve notetaking, post-reading processes, and how reading outside your discipline can improve your academic writing. Below is a summary of key insights from the discussion.

We began the conversation by asking, “Why is reading an important skill for academic writing?” Apfelbaum shared that “Academic knowledge is advanced by building upon the ideas and discoveries documented in previously published scholarly literature. You can’t craft academic pieces competently w/o being able to consume and parse out large amounts of existing information.”

Oullette added, “you have to know where you stand in relation to the field”. He encouraged that academic writers ask themselves, “What are the conversations you are extending, altering, resisting, bridging, etc.”? Concluding his thought on why reading is important to writing, he said, “Framing & locating are essential.”

Before reading

There are several ways to set yourself up for success even before you begin reading. The UNC Writing Center says, “Establishing why you are reading something will help you decide how to read it, which saves time and improves comprehension.”

Excelsior College’s Online Reading Lab suggests that “Before reading, a successful reader will think about the assignment, preview the text to create a mental map, and ask questions about what they know, and expect to learn from the text.” They offer strategies of previewing and questioning in the reading process.

It’s important to note, however, that what works for others may not be best for you. Apfelbaum advised participants to “Figure out what strategy you’ll need to employ to take the most effective notes on the material.”, noting that “Different things work for different people, so try lots of strategies before committing to one.”

Reading and note taking

According to Harvard Library, “Research has shown that students who read deliberately retain more information and retain it longer.” Some strategies for taking notes while reading that can improve retention and effectiveness were offered by our TweetChat participants.

Mehta shared that she uses a highlighter to mark important points in the reading and then writes a summary and any questions from the reading. Further, Mehta will “prepare keynotes, synopsis or mindmaps of important points”, identifying that the visual strategies help in memory retention and later writing efforts.

In addition to noting key passages, Apfelbaum says that she will “annotate with brief comments and return after reading the whole text to make more extensive comments.” Electronically, Apfelbaum uses Google Docs to annotate PDFs with highlighting and comments or the Kami extension for Chrome for “more fancy annotation”. For physical books, she uses multi-colored post-it flags. “I determine at the outset what I’m looking for, assign that theme/topic to a particular flag color, and flag as I go.  It’s a good no-damage solution for library books or books you don’t want to mark up.” She shared that this process lets her take notes later by revisiting the flagged content by color. According to Apfelbaum, “It helps not having to switch your focus between topics, which you have to do if you take notes page by page.”

Ouellette keeps a file with relevant and important citations and then annotates the references, so they are ready to plug in to his papers later. He, however, prefers to write by hand and suggests a more manual process of notetaking. “Put away your highlighter. Get some paper & a pen or pencil, or make a doc. Write down how & why the passage is important & how it connects (or doesn’t) to what you’re doing. Highlighting or underlining passages is nice, but practicing the discourse is essential.”

After reading

Excelsior College’s Online Reading Lab states, “After reading, a successful reader will make time to engage and evaluate what they just read.” They offer strategies of paraphrasing, summarizing, analyzing, and synthesizing as next steps in the process.   Mehta noted, however, that a break between reading and next step processes is essential. “Immediately take a break and come back with a fresh mind, it helps to analyze learnings with a new perspective”, she says. Apfelbaum agreed.

During the analysis of the reading, Ouellette reiterated the importance of evaluating the potential contribution of the source to the intended writing project ahead. “Forget like and dislike. What is the issue/topic/concern debate the piece is engaging and how & why does it contribute (or not)? Your take may change over time & given circumstances.”

Reading outside your discipline

All reading has benefit – even those mystery novels in your downtime. Dartmouth College shares, “Those who argue in favor of reading in the writing classroom claim that reading inspires students, introducing them to great ideas and improving their ability to think critically and analytically.”

Whether reading work in a different discipline or simply for pleasure, Mehta stated that it “helps in expanding vocabulary, simplifying complex concepts and just give a mental tonic”. Apfelbaum added, “It often provides you with a lens that allows you to look at an area within your discipline from a totally different perspective.”

In their article, “Reading and Writing Go Hand in Hand”, the University of Texas at Arlington quotes Stephen King as he identified the importance of reading on writing, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others; read a lot and write a lot.”

We encourage you to join us tomorrow morning, May 29th at 11am ET for our next TweetChat event on Twitter at hashtag #AcWriChat. During that event we will be discussing how to turn your academic ideas into written text. See you there!


Eric Schmieder

Eric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CS