Skip to content

Critical writing: Managing your reading

Jump to content on this page:

“A good reader will be able to use a range of approaches to reading, and will possess a variety of helpful reading skills. Perhaps even more importantly, a good reader will be able to make sensible decisions about what reading will be worthwhile.”

Gavin Fairburn & Susan Fairburn,  Reading at University

The sheer quantity of literature that you will need to engage with at university means that you will need to develop skills and knowledge to make you a more effective reader. This page considers the best times to read, how to read selectively and introduces a systematic reading technique.

When to read

Many students think that reading is something that you can fit in around other tasks. Perhaps something to leave to the end of the day when you're too tired to be writing. This is not the best strategy. Reading is the most essential task you will have to do at university—you will probably spend longer reading for each assignment than you do writing it.

Most people tend to remember the information that they have taken in at the beginning and at then end of sessions:

visual representation of the text

It is therefore a good strategy to create more beginnings and endings by having regular breaks, say after each half hour:

visual representation of the text

Before you set off again, you can quickly review what you read earlier and this too will help with retention, although it is what you understand from your reading that really counts.

What to read (reading selectively)

Tutors organise their reading lists in different ways. Some give you information week by week about what you should read, with specific digitised chapters of books and links to journal articles, others just give a list of recommended books. Some books may be categorised as core or essential reading and priority should be given to those. However, it does not mean that you have to read all these books cover-to-cover.

Why you are reading will influence what and how you read. Here is a very general guide:

Why you read

What you read

How you read

Get a feel for the subject

  • A general book from your reading list

Have a quick skim through the book marking anything that looks interesting (with removable tags of course).

Many eBooks let you highlight passages too.

Understand your lectures (beforehand)

  • A general book from your reading list

Look at chapter headings and see which are relevant to the published lecture titles. Read quickly through the relevant chapters (the first and last sentence of most paragraphs may be enough) Chapter summaries are useful too.

Find out more about lecture material (afterwards)

  • Specific chapters from a general book or a more specific book from your reading list.
  • Any specific journal articles mentioned in the lecture.

Book: Use any headings and subheadings to direct you to the appropriate sections. Read those - probably relatively slowly and carefully as they shouldn't be too long.

Journal: Read at least the abstract, introduction and conclusions. Specifics will probably not be needed at this stage (unless it is the methodology you have been asked to look at).

Prepare for a tutorial/seminar

  • You will be given specific material to read (usually a book chapter or journal article)

Read anything you have been specifically given carefully. Use highlighter pens/tools (depending on how you are reading it) to pick out important passages on printouts or online copies.

Add comments in margins of print outs or using online tools. Use tags and post-it notes to mark passages and add quick notes to books.

Write an assignment

  • Book chapters to start
  • Journal articles
  • Specific reports/cases etc;

Different stages of the assignment will call for different depths of reading. Initially you will be getting a feel for the general issues and formulate a general argument. Reading summaries and abstracts is useful for this.

Once you have an idea where you think your arguments are going you should start reading more selective articles - introductions and conclusions at first and the whole article if these are particularly relevant.

Inform your writing style

  • Journal articles in your discipline

Look at how articles are structured and the sort of language they use. If you find an article really difficult to read, it is probably NOT an example of a good writing style. Find ones that you can understand with a little careful thought and they are probably good exemplars.

For interest

  • Web pages
  • Popular as well as 'serious' books,
  • Journal articles

If you are reading for interest you will probably take your time more - just make sure you approach less reputable sources with more criticality.

How to read 

Effective reading needs to be active. In an academic context the purpose of your reading will probably be to develop your thoughts and to add new information to that which you already have—to see links between the old and the new. By consciously thinking as you read, you will be learning, which involves changing your ideas, seeing them from new angles and combining them in new ways.


Reading systematically

One systematic way of reading is using the SQ3R method:

SQ3R method (explained in following text)


  • Survey – skim the book, article or chapter to discover what it’s about and what you can gain from it. It may also help to have a quick look at the contents and index. If it looks relevant go to the next stage.
  • Question – write down questions you’ll be able to answer once you’ve finished reading the text properly. You can formulate the questions on the basis of your survey and your own needs, possibly an essay you have to write or a seminar paper you have to give.
  • Read – once you have your list of questions the reading is easy. Find where the answers to your questions are and read those parts carefully. Note key words and checking your understanding. Don’t be tempted to read more than you have to!!!
  • Recall – with the book and your notes to one side, try to answer all your questions. This will tell you what you’ve learned and what you need to go back to.
  • Review – return to the text to see if your answers were right. Go over the bits you got wrong or couldn’t answer. Remember, though, that “books have a habit of sucking in the unwary and wasting their time”.


Try out the SQ3R technique for yourself. Start with a fairly short text. It might be interesting to work with a friend and compare (a) your questions, which will probably differ and (b) your thoughts on the technique.