Blog 117: 5 Tips for Reading for Essays/Assignments.

July 29, 2021

After having my nose to the grindstone for four months, I have finally finished all of my assignments for my undergraduate English Literature and Film & TV Studies degree. Due to an episode of poor mental health in the run up to my May deadlines, I had to ask for an extension until August, which means that I will be graduating in December. Now they’re behind me, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on my experiences. I will probably write a few of these blog posts while it’s still fresh.

So, I’ve turned up to my lectures and film screenings. I’ve done a few of the assigned readings and have taken up all of my seminar tutor’s attention to the ire of my classmates. I’ve been given my first essay task of that semester and chosen my question and topic of discussion. Now what? Well, I start by doing my reading. It may sound obvious, but it’s an incredibly important part of your essay writing process. The more well-read/well-versed you are in a topic, the more informed you can be about it, and this quality will show in your essays.

I may not be a professor or tutor, or any kind of expert in the subjects I’ve studied, but here’s some tips I’ve learned over my years at university that you should bear in mind while researching for your essays:

  1. Make sure you have a variety of secondary sources.

You use these to back up whatever you argue or state as facts to show you’ve done some research and pretend you’ve not bullshitted your way through. It depends on the scope of your essay, but for example in a 2,000-word essay (not in exam conditions), you’re best to aim for a minimum of 5 sources. It’ll differ from essay to essay, so double check with your lecturer to know what they’re expecting. They prefer academic sources like non-fiction books and articles in academic journals. It’s especially good if you cite readings that have been set by the course convenor or lecturer and/or seminar readings, as it shows them that you have been paying attention to their course and engaging with their teaching materials. It’s also easier for you, because it’s reading you will have (in theory) done already.

However, you should always show that you have done your own further reading, too as it will indicate to the marker that you care about the topic you’re discussing in the essay and, by extension, your subject as a whole.

For exam conditions, you’re unlikely to be asked to memorize these sources but for discussing theories like Marxism, feminism or queer theory, or sociological or psychological theories, or concepts from the likes of Roland Barthes, it will certainly help boost your grade. You’re also (mostly) not expected to remember huge chunks of quotes from primary sources (such as the novel you’re discussing), though this varies from course to course. Always double check with your course convenor before you launch into memorizing quotes.

  • Master the art of speed reading

This is a skill I have not mastered but wished that I did. I’m a slow reader. I often need to go back to parts I’ve already read to process everything properly. Because of this, I would read through every source pretty thoroughly, noting down any snippets that might be tangentially useful to my essay. This led to pages upon pages of notes I would end up not using as I put the essay together. I did this instead of highlighting, as most of my reading was done through PDFs online and even considering using highlighter pens on a university library book is basically punishable by death. A few e-reading websites I found through the university have a highlight and copy function, but not always. I could have taken print outs of each PDF and highlight those, but I didn’t like to waste paper.

If you are able to speed read, it will save you a lot of time. Plus, if you find anything interesting or worth coming back to, you can jot it down or come back to it later.  Hopefully, this is a skill that you will master yourself over the course of your degree, but some people (like me, for example) need to practice a little bit harder at it.

  • Know when to let go of a source

Although this might sound obvious, I was often caught in a trap where I’d keep on ploughing through a reading that was less than useful. Maybe it didn’t have enough that was important to the essay. Maybe I was already most of the way through drafting said essay and only needed a small quote to back up a point I was making. Maybe the text was just full of academic-ese fluff and didn’t get to the bloody point. I would have originally found the reading in my frenzied search for further reading, or in my seminar readings and stuck with it in the hopes of finding something applicable to what I was discussing. This resulted in me wasting a whole lot of time and energy better spent on other readings.

Having an idea of potential biases, agendas or pitfalls in a reading is a useful thing to bear in mind as you write and study, and knowing when you’re coming across waffling sources is an incredibly useful skill to pick up going forward. Sometimes you’ve got no choice but to try and decipher it for a subject, as it is an important part of literary or theoretical canon. However, feeling stupid because you can’t understand something won’t help you. You can put the thing down and ask for help.

This sentiment kind of feels like a taboo, because really I should be encouraging to read more not less. However, I stand by my point. You can read more useful stuff if you don’t waste time on stuff that isn’t useful. To be honest that same mindset applies to reading for pleasure too. Don’t stick with a book just because you think you have to. Reading is supposed to be fun and informative, and if it’s neither then put it down.

  • Nail down your citations

Things like the title of the book or journal article, author/editor(s), year of release, title of chapter (if applicable), author of chapter (if applicable), publisher and place of publisher, are all vital to help you cite properly. If you’re using online sources (which is what I used most of the time), have at the very least a hyperlink to the source you’ve used. I cannot emphasise this enough, as you’ll need to come back to it later if you’ve missed details. The marker of your essay needs to be able to access your sources so they know they actually exist.  It’s incredibly important to cite your sources properly and make sure that your lecturers can find them, which includes your layout. My go-to was Harvard Referencing. I always used Angela Ruskin’s resource1 and followed the layout for each source. Although this is a widely recognized referencing format, double check which style your university prefers. I’ll probably go into this in more depth in a future blog post about writing essays, but I found it useful to place all the most useful information to citing as possible in the notes before I start noting snippets.

  • Find your process and own it.

I found mine early on, imperfect as it was and it served me well. I managed to get good grades, though I often needed extensions due to my anxiety in the lead up to tight deadlines. Thankfully I was on the radar of my university’s disability services early on, so this didn’t impact my grades. Maybe you’re a whizz with the highlighter and printouts. Maybe you buy the university textbooks. Maybe you stick with the online resources. Maybe you make your pilgrimages to the library, lugging physical books in your bag. I tended to stick with e-books and PDFs of journal entries and read them through my Google Drive, because I am terrible at returning my library books on time. I would advise you make the most of the university library as there is something charming about these buildings, and you will have access to books that are typically unavailable to other libraries. Even if sitting in the library café and doing some people watching as you sip your hot drink is a meaningful thing, especially as the world opens back up again.

If you struggle with reading, it might be worthwhile getting a text to speech application that you can read along with, or to read to you while you keep your hands busy. (And yes, this counts regardless of what any elitist snobs may tell you). If you have been diagnosed with a learning disability or may think you have one, it’s worth getting in touch with disability services to see what they can offer you.

In any case, as you go on with your degree, you’ll find a researching style that suits you. Although my personal process was probably inefficient (and the cause of multiple bouts of carpal tunnel syndrome), it was mine and it still got the essays done. And all the critical thinking and reading skills you’ll pick up will stay with you, but they will keep improving after university as long as you use them.

Reading, whether casual or researching, is a skill that needs honing. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Because my mental health has been very up and down over these four years, I’ve not had much energy to read for fun. I think a lot of my peers can say the same. They spend so much time reading for classes, they don’t have much time to read for pleasure. However, I’m now in a place where I’ve got time to read for myself and my options are limitless.