College-level writing focuses on analyzing and evaluating as opposed to summarizing. For example, we would not be writing merely to describe a poem or restate a theory in anthropology, but to explain whether (or not) and why we think the poet’s use of language is effective and why we believe (or not) that there is adequate evidence for the theory.
The focus of college-level writing needs to inform our approach to reading. If our task were merely to describe a novel or restate an interpretation of an election, we could read passively, just taking in information so that we can repeat it. However, given that our goal is to analyze and evaluate, we must read actively, and that means we must constantly ask questions. The sorts of questions we raise will differ depending upon the work. The queries at the heart of “close readings” of literary texts differ from those at the core of “critical readings” of research. That said, in either case, our attentive reading results in questions, which then lead to re-readings and more and deeper levels of questions. These deeper questions drive our analysis of the work, while our answers to them lead to our assessment of the work.
Whether our work involves close readings or critical readings, we will want to jot down questions and ideas as we work our way through a text. Active reading is hard work and we do not want to lose track of our insights. Since careful reading generates questions, one approach to note taking is to organize our reflections under question and sub-question headings, leaving plenty of space beneath each question for relevant observations and reflections. As we continue recording questions and reflections, we may discover our thesis statement and the outline of our paper.
Our note taking will be most efficient, if we take the time to document our sources, using the style our professor requires (see “Acknowledging Sources” under “Writing to Understand” below). And, we also double check to make sure that any quotations in our notes are exact; avoid inadvertent plagiarism by providing our own summaries and paraphrases of the material (see “Avoiding Plagiarism” below under “Revising.)