- Academic Research and Writing Tips / Tutorial

Good Ways of Skimming Essay Text and Still Writing a Good Academic Paper

What are some good ways to skim a text and still get the information I need out of it to write the paper?

Why do students despise the research paper? Not because they are dry and generally less colorful than other forms of writing, although this is certainly true. Not because of the required citations and all their strict forms. The reason for the research paper's unpopularity lies in its title - in the research.

Text Skim

Research takes time. Research requires the student to read through lengthy articles and books, reading tiny print and attempting to make sense of difficult language. Isn't there a way around it? Every student has asked themselves this question, and many have tried varying ways of reducing the time spent on research. Many students eventually give up on trying to read the text word-for-word and end up skimming the pages. If done well, efficiently and effectively, a skimmed test can give just as much information as a fully read one. The problem, however, is that most students don't know how to skim a text. But like any skill, effective skimming can be learned.

To skim a text well, you first have to decide what you're looking for. If you simply begin to skim hoping for something exciting to jump out at you, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of words on the page. Imagine going into a supermarket, looking for a specific brand of a specific snack that you've heard about, but you don't know the name or even the type of product. Looking for just “a useful fact” in a thirty-page scholarly article presents a similar challenge.

So how do you know what to look for? Well, clearly, you need to know the topic of your paper. After that, you need to know what points you wish to make. Then you can begin to think about what type of support you seek in your cited sources. Perhaps you are writing a paper about the religious beliefs of Nebraskans. Before you begin skimming, you need to know whether you are looking for church attendance statistics or analyses of the effects of belief in a higher power on corn production. If you know that you need hard data, you can skim for numbers. This being the case, you would scan any headings or section titles, focusing on any that you suspect have other useful information for your topic, and stop when you see numbers and percentages to pick out the data. This technique lets you zero in on your desired support and skip everything irrelevant.

You can use the same technique for other types of support, too. But instead of looking for numbers, you look for phrases. Think of it as turning your brain into a search engine. If you need support for that God-and-corn paper, then you know you're looking for tidbits about faith in farmers. So what points about said farmers are you going to make? Well, you know you want to discuss church attendance, prayer, and morale. These decisions tell you that when you skim, you will keep your eyes open for sections, paragraphs and sentences that include these words. When you see these words - or similar ones; the benefit here is that you are smarter than a search engine - you can stop and focus on that section, picking out the information that will be helpful to you and skimming more quickly through the rest.

Knowing what you are looking for allows your brain to adjust the speed of its skimming. If your eyes pass over a paragraph without noticing any of the words that have been imprinted on your brain as relevant, this probably means that the information in that paragraph will not help you. But with some subject words from your paper in your head, the parts that will be helpful will jump out at you. And you can reduce a lengthy resource to just a few useful paragraphs. Pretty sweet deal.