# Reading and writing

The purpose of written assignments in higher education is to develop your own independent written work based on what you have read and learned. One way to create your own text is by restructuring elements from texts written by others and disussing arguments presented in other texts. Reading while writing implies reading from the perspective of a research question and actively using what you read to develop your own analyses and argumentation. Through the reading process, you collect material that you can use in your own writing.

Keep in mind that the material you use is taken out of its original context. When you refer to or cite another text, you make it your own. You are responsible for everything in your own text. However, you cannot simply appropriate other people’s thoughts and writings as if they were your own. You need to distinguish clearly between your own ideas, paraphrases (indirect quotations) and direct quotations. In other words, you need to master basic citation techniques.

# Read your own text and those of others

  • When writing a thesis, it is important to read it through several times. Be critical, and ask your own text the same questions you would ask other texts: What is the point I want to make here? Is the research question clear? Does the text provide an answer?
  • As with other texts, it is often a good idea to put the text aside for a while occationally, and then return to it to look it over with fresh eyes. Is anything unclear? Is it entirely clear to the reader what I am investigating, what I want to demonstrate and/or argue, which ideas are my own and which are those of other scholars, etc?
  • Read your text out loud. This will help you discover problems your readers might encounter. Are the sentences too long? Is the text repetitive? One can easily get lost in details when looking at one’s own text; hearing how it sounds may give you ideas for improvements.
  • Let other people read and comment on your text. Why not ask both fellow students and someone who is not familiar with your discipline? They might discover ambiguities that you are not aware of. When you and your fellow students read each other’s texts, you learn and find inspiration, and you may also become aware of weaknesses and mistakes in other texts that you want to avoid in your own. Thus, swapping texts can be useful for both reader and writer.

# Keeping track of what you have read

When reading a text, you may sometimes think, “That was interesting. I didn’t know about that – I’ll have to remember it.” What are the best ways to make use of such glimpses of insight? This section contains advice on note-taking and other ways of combining reading and writing during your studies.

# Taking notes

  • Make notes of what you read in a notebook or in a document on your computer. This will result in better and more informative notes than scribbling in the margins. It can also be useful to write up your notes into short summaries of what you have read.
  • Adding keywords, highlighting and underlining the text you are reading is another effective technique for becoming a more active reader. A text that is heavily underlined or highlighted might give a false impression of thorough analysis, however. Underlining fragments of a text is easy. Extracting key pieces of information and organising it into a logical order requires more work, but the benefits of doing so are far greater.
  • You can highlight sections of text and make notes in the margins. Note: Do NOT write notes or highlight text in library books!
  • Try to get hold of the main message of a text, its argumentation and its context. You should make as few marks and notes as possible and keep in mind the purpose of your reading: Are you planning to appropriate a text’s contents and arguments wholesale, will you use parts of the text in connection with something else you are writing, or are you reading for an exam?
  • Do not start underlining and taking notes until you have read through the text, or at least until you have read enough to understand the general direction and subject matter. (Cf. Ways of reading). If you get involved in the details too soon, it can be difficult to understand the text as a whole. Mark and underline passages where the authors gather their arguments or where the main points are most clearly expressed.
  • Adopt a consistent policy on the symbols you use for highlighting, to mark, for example, importance. Examples of marks and symbols include underlining, double underlining, circles around words or phrases, exclamation marks and crosses. Systematic highlighting will save you time finding key points in the text later.

Note: You may change your mind about the most important aspects of a text. The first time you work with a difficult text about a new topic, you may in fact simply be guessing what is important in the text. Be open-minded when you revisit the text, you might have overlooked something important the first time – perhaps even the most important point in the text.

# Repetition

Rereading a text will help you remember it better and understand the contents more thoroughly. If you are rereading to understand a text better, reread it as soon as possible. In this case it is important to understand the text as a whole, which can only be acheived by going back and forth through the text, working out how the various parts relate to each other. When first reading a text, we tend only to see its parts. Rereading helps us understand how these parts fit together.

While writing it may be necessary to return to a text because your understanding or opinion of it has changed. Perhaps you understand the argumentation better after reading something else? Perhaps new questions have come up in your own discussion? Perhaps the text can be useful to you in a different way than you first anticipated, because you have rephrased your research question.

# Writing a summary

The idea of writing summaries while reading is to provide a tool for repetition. Highlight the main features of the text’s argumentation and structure. Your summary should be accurate and true to the text in question. Present the issues and arguments contained in a text on the text’s own premises. A summary should be neutral – this is not the place to apply your own research questions to the contents of the text or to criticise it - but you should not refrain from rephrasing and saying things in your own words. When writing summaries, aim to reproduce the authors’ claims and arguments in such a way that they might say: “Yes, that was what I meant.”

# Academic genres

When studying you have to read different types of texts: textbooks, reference works, scholarly and popular articles and essays, conference papers, official reports and theses.

# Be aware of different genres

In other words, the texts you read belong to different genres. Being conscious of genres will aid your understanding and interpretation of a text. Genre is also a useful concept when writing - look for inspiration in the texts you have read. If you are writing a term paper, bachelor’s thesis or home examination, the text should be more like an article than a textbook chapter. That is, the text should consist of arguments and discussion, rather than simply present factual knowledge.

In school one learns about literary genres (poems, short stories, novels, plays etc.) and non-fiction genres. There are both scholarly and non-scholarly genres within non-fiction. Non-scholarly examples are journalistic texts, such as editorials and news reports. The following section describes some genres of academic writing and outlines their particular characteristics.

# Some academic genres

Textbook. A textbook is mean to communicate established knowledge to students of a given subject. It provides a general introduction to the subject as well as relevant problems, concepts and theories. A textbook presents knowledge and explains how it has been used, and can be used. It informs and instructs. Even though a textbook can include discussion and argumentation, its primary objective is not to argue for or against particular positions, but to present the existing views within the subject.

Scholarly article. The purpose of a scholarly article is to present new knowledge or to provide new perspectives on an academic or scientific problem or object. The target audience is other scholars. A scholarly article is primarily argumentative. It claims that something is true or probably true and presents arguments to support the claim. Hence, a scholarly article has to present thorough and consistent reasoning. The reasoning must be properly substantiated, through references to empirical data or other research. Authors of scholarly articles should use acknowledged research methods, and also explain them.

Thesis. A thesis is a major piece of scholarly work. In some fields (especially medicine and the natural sciences), theses are frequently assembled from existing (published) articles. The thesis will then include an introduction that explains how the different articles are related to the overall theme of the thesis. In other fields (in particular the humanities and social sciences), most theses are monographs, i.e., a continuous text divided into chapters. In either case, a thesis is similar to a scholarly research paper in that it presents new knowledge to other professionals in the field, puts forward arguments, and is thoroughly substantiated. If you are writing a master’s thesis, this is the type of text you should aim to produce.

Popular (non-scholarly) work. Popular texts, in the form of either books or articles, are intended to communicate established knowledge to the “general reader”. Since such texts generally do not attempt to establish new knowledge or challenge accepted truths, there will normally be less argumentation than in a scholarly text. The author instead tries to bring the subject to life by devices such as stories, anecdotes and illustrations. Sometimes the whole text is constructed as a narrative, for example in the form of a biography of a leading expert, or by recounting historical events.

Encyclopaedia article. The purpose of an encyclopaedia article is to present established knowledge neutrally, concisely and clearly. The target audience is usually general readers, as well as specialists, although there are also scholarly encyclopaedias that require the reader to have specialist knowledge. Encyclopaedia articles are not generally intended to persuade the reader by way of reasoned argument, and they do not clarify or instruct as a textbook would. Encyclopaedia articles are intended primarily to be informative and descriptive. They provide information, define words and concepts and describe relevant circumstances.

# More about genres – and a bit about speech acts

After reading the brief descriptions of academic genres above, consider the following:

  • The assignment of genre to a text is a rough classification by characteristics and context. The very act of classification, however, is also a genre, and its utility varies with the intended purpose. The classification outlined above serves to offer some basic guidelines.
  • In practice, the above genres are not always completely strict or isolated. We often encounter texts that combine genres or breach the conventions of specific genres. A biography can have both popular and scholarly elements, and should perhaps be referred to as a “scholarly biography”. A given article might be more inquisitive, argumentative, personal and linguistically original, than a standard scholarly research paper, and is perhaps better described as an essay. In this area there are often differences both in terminology and between professional traditions.
  • In the summary above, we distinguish between genres by purpose and target audience. We also use a number of words (verbs) to describe the different genres, or what texts in these genres do: communicate, explain, present, argue, inform, describe, narrate etc. A genre of writing can be said to be characterised by the dominance of one or more speech acts. The primary purpose of an encyclopaedia article is to inform the reader. The primary purpose of a scholarly article is to present arguments. This does not mean that the article cannot also be informative. The provision of information, however, is subordinate to argumentation.

When reading an academic text, we can try to identify the different speech acts. Language researchers (linguists) sometimes talk about different “text types”. A common classification scheme (which derives from 19th century American teaching of rhetoric and writing) uses four “modes of discourse”: exposition (i.e., the presentation of an idea and relevant evidence), description, narration and argumentation, abbreviated to the acronym EDNA.

When reading a text, you should ask the following questions. What is the text doing now? Is it explaining? Is it describing? Is it narrating? Is it arguing? By asking these questions you will deepen your understanding of what is going on in the text. Such a reading will also actively prepare you for your own writing.

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Last Updated: December 5, 2022
Høyskolen på Vestlandet
Høyskolen på Vestlandet
Universitetet i Bergen
Universitetet i Bergen
Universitetet i Oslo
Universitetet i Oslo