top of page

Basic Reading & Writing Guide




Good reading and critical analysis skills are essential for any class, not just social science ones. As you delve into your studies, you may sometimes find the required amount of reading daunting, especially if English is not your first language. You may also find that sometimes, simply spending several more hours with a book still does not improve your understanding of the work. There is a lot of research out there showing that "active reading" techniques help readers to comprehend, retain, and critically examine what they read, at every age/ reading level. (Click here for a description of active vs. passive reading and here for some general tips on active reading.) The goal, then, is to read well, as well as to read more.


1. Pause after reading the introduction (whether a paragraph or a book’s entire first chapter). Write down what you think the author’s 2 key assertions will be, the 2 main questions you have, and what you think the answers might be. Keep these in mind as you read the rest of the work. Did your hunches about the reading play out?


2. Come up with a systematic note-taking system.


  • If you purchase or photocopy readings, highlight key ideas, and feel free to write visceral responses in the margins, even ones as simple as, “!!” or, “Really?” Be disciplined, however, so that you don’t end up highlighting the whole thing—This is especially tempting if the work is a seminal one that, in turn, influenced lots of other people. Even in these works, there are main ideas and secondary ones.


  • In addition, always take some notes. Force yourself to write at least a paragraph (or 5 bullet points, in sentence form) on each thing you read. This might seem tedious, but we all know that our eyes sometimes glaze over while doing homework readings. Writing something down, even if it’s via copying, helps us to snap out of it and actually process what we’re reading.


  • Always (but especially if you primarily access readings on reserve) make sure that you consistently copy notes verbatim. This is preferred, so that you can quote them later if you want. If you sometimes end up paraphrasing, make a note that these notes are in YOUR OWN WORDS, and make sure you don’t accidentally paraphrase your paraphrasing later in a way that sounds identical to the original! This way, you avoid plagiarism, and you have less work later if you choose to cite this work.


3. Read what others say about the book. This is not cheating, especially if you have done some thinking about the reading already. (Note that I'm not talking about crib notes here, but real articles and reviews with arguments and opinions.) Maybe someone else has articulated exactly what you’re thinking! Read the blurbs on the back of the book, what allies and critics say, and the bibliography, to glean what people the author seems to admire and cite a ton. This might also help you to get to the core of the author’s argument more quickly. When you read the actual work, then, look out for anticipated arguments and details that either support or belie these anticipated arguments.


4. Write down your reactions to the reading. Did you find it at all interesting? If so, did you find the overall argument strong, or were there striking details? At the end, you should also be able to answer the following questions:


  • What is the author’s thesis statement or key argument?


  • What question does this argument attempt to answer? What problem is the piece trying to address? In other words, what do you think were the drivers & motivations for this work?


  • What were the author’s supporting details? Were they logical arguments, case studies, empirical evidence, or something else?


  • What was missing from the author’s argument? What didn’t the author address?


  • In 50 words or so, what was the reading about?


5. Finally, start to think about the reading analytically. To do so, you might also consider the following questions:


  • Who is the intended audience of the work? How is this reflected in the work?


  • What is the context of the work? For example, is the author a Washington, DC insider aiming at reforming the institutions in which he or she worked? Does he or she want to mainly talk to theory-oriented academics, or to garner popular support and get press in the popular media?


  • What assumptions does the author make?


  • Does the author consider alternative hypotheses/ explanations for his or her argument? Can you come up with any?


  • Do you find the author’s argument convincing? If so, on what conditions does the argument hinge, or is the argument convincing in all situations?


  • What kind of language did the author use? Does the author’s vocabulary or style say anything about the reading’s argument, where the author comes from, or how an audience might respond to the work?


I'm already a bad-ass reader.
Take me to the writing section.


bottom of page