A significant percentage of the work we do in ASP focuses on helping students to improve their writing. Classes in Academic Writing and Grammar are filled up throughout the year, and our daily 1:1 appointments tend to revolve around analysing and improving written essays.
Many students their reading and writing as two separate entities; they do all their reading first, make notes then worry about how they are going to cram all this into an essay later. A more helpful technique was demonstrated to me by a friend and mature student currently working on his dissertation. It’s an approach I’ve been encouraging in the reading workshops we deliver, but it was great to see it in use, and to see just how effective it was. Why should you be interested? Besides anything else, it saves a lot of time.
Below is a step by step guide to more effective reading that will enhance your writing.
1 – Pick your title first. This is much more effective than reading through all your source material and deciding on a title later as it help you to focus your reading from an early stage. Remember, you very rarely have to read everything – use the indexes, chapter headings and even the opening lines of each paragraph to help you decide if material is relevant.
2 – Write your essay plan before you start reading. This might sound strange, as surely you can’t know what you’re going to write before you have done your research. But there are very few questions for which you won’t be able to devise a basic plan of the areas you want to cover.
3 – As you read, make short summaries of the most important points on separate postcards. In your own words write the main points, any useful quotes, the author’s name and the year. It should look something like this:
Incidentally, making short summaries is much more effective than simply underlining text as you are engaging with the material in a more creative way. It will also help you when you come to write the essay up.
4 – Organise your summaries into the corresponding parts of your essay plan. You may well change your essay plan as you read more and have new ideas. This is fine – just make a new file and put the relevant notes in there.
5 – Lay out the notes you have made for each part of your essay on a large table or the floor. If you have targeted your reading successfully, you should have an adequate number of ‘postcards’ for each section of the essay. You will also be able to easily see if you need to do any more reading for a particular section. It might look something like this:
6 – Now it’s time to get writing! But instead of racking your brains and trying to remember what you read last week and scanning through your notes for that brilliant quote you know you wrote down somewhere, it’s all right there in front of you! As my friend put it “All I have to do is join the points and quotes together with my own words. The writing is the easy bit!”