Mapping the Territory

Reading is an activity integral to the writing process. You may not associate reading with the difficult task of writing a college essay. After all, it seems like a passive activity, something you might do at a café or sitting in an easy chair. But while you can read solely for entertainment, soaking in the plot of a good novel or familiarizing yourself with the latest celebrity gossip, reading also drives the act of writing itself, from the earliest stages onward. Reading can—and will—make you a better writer.

But first, you have to learn how to read in a whole new way, because college-level work requires you to read actively, a skill much different from the kind of reading you have practiced since elementary school. Active reading implies not only attention paid to the text, but also consideration and response. An active reader explores what she reads; she approaches the text as though she has entered an unknown territory with the intention of drawing a map. Indeed, the difference between passive reading and active reading is like the difference between watching a nature documentary and hiking through the wilderness. The film, although entertaining, doesn’t require much exertion from the viewer. By contrast, the hiker has to navigate the trail: she must look out for hazards, read trail signs, and make informed decisions, if she hopes to make it back home.

Before you can write a successful essay, you must first understand the territory you’re about to explore. Luckily, other writers have already scouted the area and logged reports on the terrain. These missives—the articles and books your professors will ask you to read—sketch their findings. But understanding these documents can be a daunting task, unless you know how to interpret them. The following sections detail the most essential strategies for active reading.

A Two-Way Street: Reading as Conversation

Think of every text your instructor assigns as one half of a conversation between you and the writer. Good conversations achieve a balance between listening and responding. This give-and-take process drives human discourse. While one participant speaks, the other listens. But while the listener appears passive on the surface, he’s most likely already preparing his response. He may evaluate what his partner says, testing it for how closely it matches his own ideas, accepting or rejecting part or all of the statement. When he does respond, he expresses his reaction, or asks a question about something he doesn’t yet understand. Active reading mirrors this process closely. An active reader “listens” to the text, evaluating what the writer says, checking to see if it matches or differs from his current understanding of the issue or idea. He asks pertinent questions if something remains unclear, looking for answers in subsequent sections of the text. His final goal, of course, is to make a statement of his own, in the form of the essay he will eventually produce.

Retracing Your Steps: Read Every Text (at least) Twice

In fact, reading is in many ways better than conversation, because, like writing, it is recursive: you can revisit a text over and over, whereas the spoken word, unless recorded, disappears into the past, often along with part—or all—of the message the speaker was attempting to convey. When you read, you can move forward and backward in time, making sure you’ve captured every nuance. You should read the text more than once, first for a general understanding, and then for a detailed analysis; your first read-through may raise questions only a second reading can reveal the answers to.

Marking the Trail: Annotation

An active reader views the text as a living document, always incomplete. She reads with pen in hand, ready to write her observations, her questions, and her tentative answers in the margins. We call this annotation, the act of writing notes to oneself in the blank spaces of the page. It’s not the same as underlining or highlighting, neither of which promotes active reading. A simple line underneath a passage contains no information; it merely indicates—vaguely—that you found a certain passage more important than the surrounding text. Annotation, on the other hand, is a record of your active responses to the text during the act of reading. A simple phrase summarizing a paragraph, a pointed question, or an emphatic expression of approval or disbelief all indicate spirited engagement with the text, which is the cornerstone of active reading.

Pace Yourself: Know Your Limitations and Eliminate Distractions

You can’t hike the Appalachian Trail in a day. Similarly, you can’t expect to sustain active reading longer than your mind and body will allow. Active reading requires energy and attention as well as devotion. Short rest periods between readings allow you to maintain focus and deliberate on what you have learned. If you remain diligent in your reading practice, you’ll find that you can read actively for longer periods of time. But don’t push yourself past the point at which you stop paying attention. If your mind begins to wander, take ten minutes away from the text to relax.  Ideally, you should read gradually, scheduling an hour or two every day for reading, rather than leaving your assignments until the last minute. You can’t hope to gain full or even partial comprehension of a text with a deadline looming overhead.

When and where you read can be as important as how long you read. Plan your reading sessions for hours when your mental energy is at its height—usually during daylight hours. Likewise, you should select an optimal location, preferably one free of distractions. Loud music, the flickering of a TV screen, and the din of conversation tend to divert your attention from the task at hand. Even a momentary distraction, like a quick phone call or a friend asking a question, can interrupt the conversation you are having with your assigned text.