Core principle of organizing anything: “Under what circumstances should I be reminded of this?” Park appropriately.–David Allen (via Twitter)
Most academics waste time and miss opportunities because they don’t have a good system for managing their research sources. A good system includes efficient and effective procedures for (1) collecting potentially useful sources; (2) processing those sources; (3) organizing the results of that processing; (4) reviewing the results of that organizing; and (5) doing the appropriate actions.1
Deciding What to Read
If you keep a reading queue as I recommend, then you always have a list of sources to which you can turn when you have discretionary time to read.
I find it difficult to formulate rules for how to choose which item in your reading queue to read at any given time. In general, of course, the goal is to choose the source that will do the most to move your current projects forward. I suggest simply taking a stab at what that source might be. Don’t be afraid to skim, to skip parts that are not relevant to your research agenda, and to stop reading entirely if the source turns out not to serve your needs. As a researcher, you are typically reading to write rather than simply reading to understand, and you need to act accordingly.
There are times when you will want to read a book or article slowly, carefully, and more than once. (I am currently re-reading Deborah Mayo’s Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge, for instance.) My point is simply that in order to be a productive researcher you need to be strategic and intentional about what and how you read, which often means being less thorough than you probably would naturally be if you made it through graduate school.
Reading to Write
As an undergraduate I developed a detailed system for thoroughly comprehending my course readings. It involved going through the material at least twice and taking notes at different levels. That approach was great for course readings, and it helped me shine as an student. I teach it to my current students. But it would not work for most of the reading I do as a professional researcher and writer. It is focused on the wrong goal (reading to understand rather than reading to write), and it takes too long.
Reading to write generally requires a different approach. One key practice that I have adopted its to identify clearly all “action items” in my reading. Whenever I see a quote I can use, a reference to another article I want to investigate, an argument I want to critique, etc., I write “!!” in the margin, put a box around it, and jot down a brief note about what I want to do with the passage in question. (I do the same thing when I am taking notes in a class or meeting as well.)
After I am finished with the paper, I go back and attend to all of my action items. “Attending to” hear means processing: for each item that I initially identified as an action item, I decide what if anything to do with that item. I then put a placeholder for that action somewhere in my organizational system to ensure that I will actually take it.
This practice is obviously helpful for reading away from one’s office, where it might be difficult or impossible to take the appropriate actions immediately. But it’s also useful for reading in one’s office for the sake of staying in the flow of reading rather than moving back and forth between different kinds of activities. It turns the book or article you are reading into an inbox to be processed at a later time. If you have good systems for handling your inboxes, then it will ensure that you use your research sources appropriately with minimal fuss and effort.
Question: What practices do you use when you are “reading to write,” or reading in general?
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