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Skidmore College
The Skidmore Guide to Writing

The Reading Process

In college, you'll be drawing upon your readings when you write. That's why it's important to think about your own reading process and how to get the most from your reading. Certainly, it takes time to locate sources, to photocopy sources at the library, or to download sources from the Internet. But as time-consuming as those activities are, they are not the same thing as actually reading the sources. Collecting sources is not reading. You'll soon realize that in college, reading usually requires re-reading. That's because whatever you read may be complicated and thick with new ideas, information, and data. But there's another reason: you're reading not just for bits of information, but really to understand what an author is conveying. You'll rely on your reading for class discussion, for writing assignments, and for examinations. You need to know what you're reading and be able to respond to it. In short, you need to process (think about) what you're reading by reading actively.

Three tips for active reading

  1. Read with a pen or pencil in your hand. If the source is yours (i.e., not a library book or something you borrowed), use that writing implement to underline important ideas. Ask questions in the margins. Write responses to ideas you find interesting. Pretend that you're having a conversation with the author as you read what he or she has written. If you're reading a library or borrowed book, you can have this conversation in your notebook.
  2. Summarize each section of a reading in your own words right after you've read it. This tip is especially important when you're reading a textbook, but it's a good strategy even for reading a novel. Writing this summary will help you remember what you've read before you go on to the next section.
  3. After you read, set aside some time for review.

Finding main ideas in essays

In college, a critical essay gives an author's argument or analysis in response to a question.

  1. What is the question to which the author is responding?
  2. What is the author's main argument?
  3. Underline assertions that support the thesis statement.
  4. Write a summary in your own words explaining the author's main argument and supporting assertions.
  5. Make sure you recognize and understand the author's key words.
  6. Think about how the essay relates to the lectures, discussions, and other readings of the course.

Finding main ideas in textbooks

In many courses, a textbook will be a main source of information. Some textbooks provide study aids (summaries, study questions, highlighted material, vocabulary lists). It's a good idea to use these aids for review.

  1. Ask yourself- what is the chapter about?
  2. What is the author's main idea?
  3. Make a list of new terms that you need to understand - and make sure you understand them by finding definitions in the textbook or by looking up definitions from other sources.
  4. Pay attention to graphs, charts, tables, and illustrations. Make sure that you can explain the graphics in your own words. Translate illustrations into a few sentences of explanation.
  5. After reading each chapter, read the chapter summary. But don't rely only on this summary for review. Add your own sentences to the summary to include ideas that you think are important.
  6. If there is no chapter summary, write your own.
  7. Make up a few study questions for each chapter. If you wanted to "test" someone's knowledge of the chapter, what would you ask? Then, make sure you can answer those questions.