I promised this post to my students. This is how it works for me:
- quiet time, free of distractions and noises (TV, music with words)
- clear, rested, focused mind (coffee or tea help, or read in the morning)
- upright body posture to maintain alertness: sit at table, not lounge chair or bed. Look down at book.
- keep large notebook & pen on hand (for outlining main argument and/or book’s structure)
Clear goals in mind:
- to understand what the book is about (TOPIC)
- to understand the MAIN ARGUMENT of the book
- to understand what types of SUPPORTING EVIDENCE the author uses to support the main argument
My strategy: get the big picture of the book by understanding its structure (outline).
I read word for word, in this order:
- inside flap – b/c it’s usually a concise summary of the book
- back cover – the praise for the book tells me in which contexts the book has been found useful (i.e. education, or marketing, or economics). This helps me place the book in context. (oh, this is useful for marketing professionals).
- table of contents – I spend a lot of time with the table of contents, because it tells me what the outline/structure of the book is. If the chapter titles as smarty-pants instead of descriptive (boo!) I flip through the book to see what the author means by a certain smarty-pants chapter title. Here, I make my selections of chapters I might be more interested in than others.
- Preface, Introduction, first chapter – the Introduction especially gives me 80% of what I need to know: the problem addressed in the book, the book’s main claim (thesis statement) and an overview of the contents of the book. I ask myself: if this book could be summarized in ONE sentence, what would this sentence be? I hunt for this sentence and underline it boldly when I find it (sometimes I find 2 or 3, but not more – you have to be very picky here).
For example, I think this is that ONE sentence from Content Nation, found in Ch. 1, p. 2:
“In the process of becoming publishers who can reach and interact with a potentially global audience whenever they need to or want to, something is changing in the way that everyday people look at themselves and their world. […] We are beginning to look upon institutions that we used to rely on for providing us with cohesion and value in our lives as less valuable in the face of publishing technologies that allow us to organize ourselves and our lives more to our suiting.“
This is, I believe, the thesis statement of the book. It tells me what to look for from now on:
- I know the book is about self-publishing – I will look for definitions and explanations of self-publishing (TOPIC)
- I know the book is about change brought about by self publishing – I will look for an argument about the nature and the dynamic of that change (MAIN ARGUMENT)
- I know the book will talk about change in specific contexts or institutions – these will be examples, EVIDENCE that SUPPORTS the main argument
Once I identified the 3 main ingredients of the book, I go looking for them in the other chapters. I will read carefully (if I have time) the parts that inform the 3 main ingredients above (topic, main argument, supporting evidence). But, to get an idea of the entire book, I read:
- the first paragraph of each chapter – it is usually the thesis statement of that chapter. If it’s not the first paragraph (boo!) then I look for it further down the page.
- the first sentence of each paragraph (GRE tip, remember?). If the book is well written in the U.S. writing style, the first sentence of each paragraph is the paragraph’s main idea. In European writing style, it’s more complicated. It may be the last sentence.
- headings and subheadings (love them!), and the first sentence/para under each of them
- the last paragraph of each chapter, because it should be a summary/conclusion of that paragraph
- the Conclusion chapter (last chapter) because it should contain a summary of the book, some context for the book, and takeaways.
Try it out. Share tips that have worked for you. And most importantly ask yourself:
Do I write such that people can quickly grasp the meaning of my text?
[update/one more thought:] – ultimately, no matter what you do, make sure you get a few specific ideas out of your reading. If, after spending time with a reading, all you have in your head is an amorphous blur and no specific ideas, then you know you’re doing something wrong.
I’m not getting into this. But what I picked up was the use of being “too academic” as an explanation – as if being “too academic” were a bad thing. It’s not, not always .
Here’s my list  of the main characteristics of being “academic:”
Has this been said before?
Academics research thoroughly what has been written before on their topic and related concepts, in one or more disciplines. They don’t reinvent the wheel. Lack of familiarity with previous literature reduces one’s credibility and increases the risk of reinventing the wheel. Keyword: library (yes, library!)
I remember of a dear and very much appreciated analyst who was working on a report on communities and was crowd-sourcing the definition of “community.” There are full library shelves on the concept. Read ’em. Cite ’em. Think of the literature review as a different from of crowd-sourcing 🙂
Claim + Supporting evidence
Academics follow this formula very rigorously. For every single claim (every single sentence, sometimes word in a publication), you need evidence.
Claim: Tomatoes are red.
Evidence: ??? Can be empirical (inductive) – based on observations, surveys, etc. or can be a logical argument. In which case, avoid fallacies.
My dear mentor  would question every single statement in my papers and in the process taught me that you cannot make a claim without solid supporting evidence. And when you only have this much evidence, you make a smaller, more specific, claim.
So, if: “The public has been ignored in public relations” = claim, what is the evidence for that? What kind of evidence would you provide, and are you sure that the evidence is sufficient and valid?
Academic writing is specific & precise
… and that’s what makes it inaccessible. Oh, why do we need the word “stakeholder” when we have “public”? Well, because we define concepts and we need words to refer to the specific concepts. We need to avoid confusion with the general usage of the word. Inaccessibility is the downside.
The upside is that, good academic writing is not vague – it has (almost – see) surgical precision. You need that surgical precision to stand up to scrutiny, to make sure you don’t over-generalize, and that there’s good fit between the evidence and the claim.
I strive to produce both academic AND accessible writing, and maybe so should you. Go ahead. Be academic.
 Academic thinking will teach you to avoid overstatements and over-generalizations; to be specific if possible, inclusive or ambivalent otherwise.
 I can hear my dear mentor’s  voice: Why do you put only these things on the list? How do you know you’ve exhausted all possibilities? What are the criteria for inclusion/exclusion/sorting of the list? Beware the laundry list fallacy.
 Carl Botan
This is why I recommend graduate school. I don’t care if it will make you more money or get you a better job. It will sharpen your mind, enhance your critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and teach you humility – at least you know what you don’t know, and you learn to question everything, your work and yourself included (downside: bye-bye, self-esteem!).