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Notes From a Writer's Desk: You Are What You Read

During graduate school, I lost touch with a core attribute of my identity: my love of reading. Since early childhood, I had always relished sinking into a good story at every opportunity. This instilled a veneration for the art of good writing; it also made the kind of reading necessary to stay afloat during general exam preparations feel like sacrilege. Gone were the days of savoring texts—now, the order of business was plunder: get in and get out as quickly as possible, pillage what you can, move on to the next target. I made the requisite march through hundreds of books and articles, distilling scholars’ years of labor into a standardized notes format, all culminating in a two-hour conversation with my committee. By the time my exams were behind me, I continued to read secondary works and archival documents for my dissertation research, but I stopped reading for pleasure entirely.

It took years to repair my relationship with reading. As I moved through the writing-intensive phase of my degree, I gradually rediscovered that consuming text was essential for producing it. It also became clear that there are several distinct modes of reading. Each of these channels attention towards specific elements of texts, and each serves a different purpose for us in our roles as authors.

The first of these modes is the aforementioned approach that is required in many graduate courses and in preparation for comprehensive exams. This mode is all about argument and evidence, and it is through this mode of reading that we discover openings where we can enter scholarly conversations as writers. Students often describe this mode in violent terms—“gutting,” “ripping,” “pulling,” etc.—and for good reason. It is typically not possible to read every assigned word, so it is necessary to learn how to hunt for critical information. But we might also think of this mode in cartographic terms. Its purpose is to survey expansive scholarly terrain, to map existing arguments and relationships between them, to evaluate how those arguments were constructed, and to identify weak points. This exercise may reveal uncharted territory—ways you can ask new questions or fruitfully combine approaches not normally considered together.

Success with this mode requires learning techniques for skimming academic writing: prereading a chunk of text to identify which sections deserve most of your attention, looking for main ideas in introductory sections, reading the first sentence of paragraphs. (Keep an eye out for workshops at the Academic Resource Center for additional strategies!) You will also need to develop a note taking system that can track arguments, methods, comparisons, and data. 

This mode of reading will likely dominate early years of graduate work, and it will remain important throughout your graduate journey and beyond. It can be helpful to set aside a regular chunk of time on your calendar to duck into recent issues of key journals to stay abreast of cutting-edge research in your field.

A second mode of reading targets a more select body of excellent writing in your field that you can use as models for your dissertation. In this case, you are looking for ideas pertaining to structure and style. You might study the composition of recent award-winning books, articles, or even recent dissertations by students who worked with your advisor. (For dissertations, check the ProQuest Dissertations & Theses database.) Models do not necessarily need to be related to your particular topic, since what you are seeking are ways of presenting information effectively. How does the author begin their piece? How do they articulate the significance of what they are doing? How do they make use of questions? When does the argument appear? How do they integrate evidence with analysis? How many sections do they use? Watch for patterns in disciplinary style. You might consider keeping a notebook where you record your observations as they pertain to the structure of effective pieces in your field. For example, I have pages that note ways that historians use their writing to enliven dull statistics.

A third mode of reading is the kind that you do simply because you want to. This mode of reading has been just as important as the others for my writing practice. It stimulates creativity and reminds me of the joy that can be found in reading and in writing. You might step back from academic work altogether to appreciate writing that you find inspiring in other genres. To protect time for this mode, it can be helpful to ritualize dwelling in writing that you enjoy—make a daily or weekly date with yourself, perhaps with a favorite beverage or in a particular location, and treat that time as sacred. Lately, I have made a point of exploring a new coffee shop each Saturday afternoon and bringing a book with me to enjoy. On the one hand, you might want to bring a mindful approach to this mode of reading as well. You could note what moves you in the writing that you are drawn to, or mark rhythms or words you want to keep in mind. On the other hand, it is also a great idea to let go of plans and objectives and to simply make time to linger in beautiful writing. April is National Poetry Month, so now is as good a time as any to do so!

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