Blog post

Mastering the Grad School Essentials: Reading and Writing Strategies

September 22, 2015
By GradProSkills

Missed our first Read/Write/Present workshop? No worries. These tips and resources come our way via workshop leader Kester Dyer, who shares his notes on the most effective reading and writing strategies for grad school.


Here's what to do if you want to…


1. well in class discussion

Before class: In addition to doing class readings, you should note down questions and comments while reading that you can bring to the discussion, writes University of Washington Professor Ralina Joseph.

Once you’re in class, Joseph recommends staying away from lambasting the reading or author of the week. Instead, “attempt to articulate its contributions/interventions as well as limitation,” she writes. If you can, connect the weeks’ reading with those from other classes or with your prior knowledge.

Kester also recommends rephrasing the text’s conclusions in discussion. If you're looking for a good way to ground an argument is to begin with examples from the text.



2. ...get through those stacks of readings

Don’t skip a reading! That’s one of Beth Azar’s main points in her reading tips for the American Psychological Association. Instead, giving yourself a daily goal of pages to read will break down the reading into more manageable chunks. If you’re doing well in one class, Azar suggests concentrating on a class where you need to spend the extra time on the material.

A note on skim reading: Evidence shows skim reading can lead to more information absorbed than by only thoroughly reading part of a text, writes Azar. However, she warns that by skim reading you will sacrifice a deeper understanding of the text. She recommends saving the technique for those classes you’re already doing well in.



3. more efficiently

Azar recommends using the SQ3R Method of active reading. The method has five steps: surveying, questioning, reading, reciting, and reviewing.

Another active reading method Kester brings up is “Frame Reading”, to which he was introduced by Prof. Salazkina from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema from a handout developed at Colgate University by Prof. Jennifer Lutman.

Here’s a run-down of how it works:

  • Be sure to reserve a significant amount of time to devote to reading;
  • “Frame Read” the text scanning and skimming it;
  • Identify markers of structure and emphasis, such as ​“In this essay, I will…” “Three important things need to be said…" “First, …, second, …” or “For example, …”.
  • Back-cast as you read paragraphs, reading each paragraph without underlining, looking up anything unclear, summarizing the key idea of each paragraph and circling or underlining it in the text.



4. ...improve your organizational skills

Organizing your readings is beneficial on a number of levels. Whether you’re writing a lit review or a dissertation, being able to refer back to your notes quickly will save you time and allow you to write more thoroughly and creatively. Reviewing for exams or writing assignments like annotated bibliographies will become a piece of cake (especially if you follow one of the active reading strategies outlined above). Plus, you’ll be able to respond more quickly and effectively to calls for papers, or apply for funding.

Here are a few tips on organizing your readings and notes:

  1. Keep printed articles in file folders.
  2. Keep different notebooks for different purposes (one seminar per notebook is a good way to separate topics).
  3. Generate annotated bibliographies.
  4. Use Refworks. 

5. ...improve your writing

  • Write every day! Writing regularly is one of the fastest ways to improve.
  • Got a writing buddy? Ask them to peer edit your work and give you feedback.
  • Try writing a reverse outline, where you remove everything but your most important points from your draft to test whether your paper has met its goal. The University of Wisconsin’s Writing Handbook is a good resource if you’ve never done this before.
  • “Avoid stringing quotes together,” recommends Kester. Your work should be written primarily in your own words (aim for a 75/25 ratio of your own words to other authors', if that helps).
  • Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab) is full of quality writing resources.

6. ...write a literature review

If you’re tasked with writing a review of the literature - often a component of the introduction to a longer paper - you will be surveying the previous significant scholarly work on your topic.

Your literature review should be relevant to your research question; summarize “what is and is not known” about your topic; define “areas of controversy” that have arisen in the literature; and “formulate questions that need further research,” writes Dena Taylor for the University of Toronto.

Taylor also provides a list of questions you should ask yourself about each text you are reviewing. (For example: Has the author formulated a problem/issue? Is it clearly defined? Could it have been approached more effectively from another perspective? Etc.)

If you’re still not sure on how to write that lit review, check out this helpful “How-To” provided by the Concordia library.


Photos used via Creative Commons License, courtesy of: RachRaul Pacheco-VegaAlexandre Dulaunoygaspi *yg and Marino González


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