How To Effectively Skim An Academic Book
When it comes to writing papers in college, we often have to read academic books. I have discussed how to effectively skim academic articles on the blog before, but today I want to discuss how to skim books. This is a great skill to have, because who wants to read a 300 page book in a week to do a paper? Not this girl! Check out my tips below.
Attention: This is not going to be about getting the cliff notes version of the book!
For some books that works, but I am not just going to tell you that. Skimming the book requires more focus than just picking up a summary of the book. Today I am going to give you the rundown on what skimming a book entails and I am going to go in-depth on this. I will even be sharing a video where I walk you through these steps because I want to make sure that you are able to skim an actual book.
I hope that you love this post and that it helps you out. These are seriously the things I wish I knew when I first started school, especially graduate school. If you know the story of when I first started graduate school I was drowning in school work. That semester I was taking sociological theory and my course had about 10 books along with countless articles. I was trying to read every word of these books, but I am here to tell you that you do not need to do this. No one does this.
The people that you see keeping up with their schoolwork each week are not reading the books word for word.
I think that we get so wrapped up in other people's study habits and the fact that they seem to be on top of things that we don't take a step back and try to understand the most effective and efficient way to research and study. Today we are going to fix that.
I. Understand Why You Are Reading The Book
The first step to skimming anything, whether it is a book or an article is to take a step back and understand why you are reading it. Different things require different levels of skimming. For some things you can potentially stop at the table of contents, but for some you may have to dig deeper and read parts of the chapters in the book.
Here are some reasons you might be reading the book:
- Writing an annotated bibliography: Honestly, the table of contents will be your best friend if you are just writing an annotated bibliography. You can't go too in depth when you are writing an annotated bibliography, but you do want to give a few facts past what you can see in the table of contents.
- Writing a paper: If you are just including the book as a reference in a paper the table of contents and a few chapters you find interesting throughout the book to skim would be most important.
- Writing a paper about the book: If your paper is centered around the book your skimming will be focused around the table of contents and each chapter in the book.
- Discussing the book in class: If you are reading the book to discuss it in a class and maybe write a smaller assignment about the book, you will still need to skim the table of contents and all the chapters, but this won't be as detailed a skim as if you were writing a paper about it.
Pro Tip: If you are reading the book to discuss in class, do a light skimming of all the chapters, and then get to know a couple of topics that seem important really well. Don't get called on, talk first, and give your opinions on what you have learned well.
The above pro tip has literally saved my life in discussion-based courses where I skim a book to discuss in class. The same can be said of any article your skim too.
Read The Assignment
Before you do any kind of skimming, read the assignment. Know exactly what is expected of you and how the book plays into those expectations. How much detail does your professor want from the book? How do they discuss the book when it comes to those expectations?
For example, sometimes you may have a paper that is centered around the book, but the summary of the book only takes up a few pages of the assignment. If this is the case, you can be more selective with how much work you put into skimming.
Additionally, if this book is a part of a larger 30 page paper and will just be 1 of 30 sources, you will approach skimming a lot differently than if you are writing a 30 page paper on just this book.
Read the assignment first to get an understanding of how much detail you need to give and find a way to skim the book that gives you that much detail.
II. Understand The Important Parts Of The Book
In this section I will cover the important parts of the book that you want to make a mission to look through when you are working on skimming your book. These are the parts I normally skim, but skim with the context of your assignment in mind.
The cover can be very beneficial (but it really depends on the layout of the book.) Not all book covers are as valuable as they used to be. Some book covers are just a love letter to the author(s), but some book covers do a great job at offering a synopsis of the book. Having a brief paragraph about the book before you jump into it can be beneficial for you.
Make your way to the back of the book because the covers aren't usually very helpful. The synopsis will most likely be found on the back of the book.
Table Of Contents
The table of contents is one of the most helpful parts of the book, especially because some books have extremely detailed table of contents. Look at the table of contents and examine what chapters are in the book and what each chapter is talking about.
If you have to write a small essay about this book this can be really beneficial because you take the table of contents and examine which ones you want to focus on, and which chapters you may not want to read much on.
Pro Tip: Remember, this is not a fiction book. These chapters don't necessarily build on each other. You don't have to (and potentially shouldn't) read each chapter in succession.
Students get caught up on reading every single word, but there is a big chance that you don't have to, and in fact, you shouldn't. Use the table of contents to guide your reading to the parts of the book that you feel will be most helpful for you.
The index of an academic book can be really beneficial, because it groups a lot of categories and people together.
Pro Tip: Think about how many items are listed for a certain topic in the index. If a certain topic has a long index listing, it is more than likely very important, and should be included in your essay or discussion of the book.
The length of an index listing should be an important tell for the importance of that topic. Take the following index listings pulled from Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity:
next-action decisions, 60, 62, 77-79, 127-39, 253-65, 268
accountability and, 262-63
as acquired practice 254-55
categories of 43-45
clarity and, 261-62
and creating the options of doing, 255-57
empowerment and, 264-65
intelligent dumbing down and, 259-61
as operational standard, 253, 264-65
procrastination and, 257-61
productivity and, 263
source of technique, 254-55
As we can see here, we have a lot of information in this book about next-action decisions, but not only is there a lot of information, it is pretty spread throughout the book. One, once we go back to the table of contents for this book we understand that their is an entire chapter devoted to this concept in David Allen's book, but there is also a few mentions of this concept in other parts of this book which is a good sign.
On the other hand, agreements only has a couple of entries, and they are really bound to one part of the book. This wouldn't be a good topic to spend a lot of time on if you are skimming a book, because there isn't much on this topic in the book.
If you were writing a paper on this book, you would be better served spending time looking at the next-action decision listings over the agreements listings, because you could get more out of your time spent skimming.
Furthermore, if you want to make a believable case that you have read the book, you would be better served adding content that takes up a bigger section of the book. Including things that take up a big portion of the book means that you understand what the big picture concepts of the book are.
Headings & Subheadings Of Chapters
Once you are in the actual chapters of the book, you must become familiar with the various headings and subheadings of the book. This helps you keep on target and understand that you need to get through as much of the chapter as possible.
This is obviously not to say that you have to read everything, but that you have to read a little bit of everything. If you can say a couple of things about each of the headings/subheadings in a book that is good when it comes to deciding what to write in a paper.
Remember that you won't have to skim every part of a book the same way. You may want to lightly skim some parts of a chapter, which may not require much more than just looking at pictures and definitions. Some skimming will require heavy reading of sections of the chapter.
Introduction & Conclusion Chapters
If your book has introduction or conclusion chapters, those can be really important to read and heavily skim. Just like the introduction and conclusion sections of an article are extremely beneficial, so are those chapters. Sometimes all you truly need to know about a book can be found in a comprehensive search of the conclusion chapter.
III. Understand Sections Of The Book You probably Don't Need To Read
There are many parts of a book that are just there mainly for serious academics in a field. You don't necessarily have to read these sections, especially as an undergraduate. I do want to discuss these sections and where it might be appropriate to read these sections.
Academic books often have notes and end notes scattered throughout chapters and at the end of pages. Don't read those, they are usually just there for other academics who may have more questions about a certain concept. If you do have a few extra questions or want to learn a little more, you can definitely read those, but most professors don't expect that you will read those end notes and notes sections.
Unless you are specifically told to read the appendix, this is another section of the article you can probably skip (especially for an undergraduate paper.) There is a reason that it was put at the back of the book versus in the actual chapter. Think of it as the geeky methodology explanation and the really specific information, usually this is for academics to read. It may be beneficial if there is a concept that you don't understand in the book that you think will be further understood by skimming the appendix, but otherwise you can skip these sections.
Sometimes the author of an academic book will include a selected bibliography where they will include some great extra reads. You don't have to necessarily look into this, but it can be beneficial if you are looking for other sources to cite in a paper you are writing.
IV. Understand the purpose is to skim
Often times when we skim, we forget the fact that we are actually skimming. We get so enthralled with the sections of the book that we are reading for the purposes of skimming that we start to read instead of skim the text. Don't do this.
The Pomodoro Technique
I have told y'all about why I am obsessed with the pomodoro technique in the past. I love this even more for skimming books and articles. Why? The Pomodoro Technique makes you take a break when you are studying. During this break you are forced to take sometime to check emails or check Instagram, and during this time you are also assessing your previous study session. As you are relaxing for a few minutes between sessions you can re-evaluate how much time you are spending skimming versus just reading.
When you don't use the pomodoro technique it's easy to study for hours without ever re-evaluating your skimming. Taking breaks allows you to re-orient yourself and skim more.
V. The Video
Below I have filmed a great video all about skimming an academic book. It is about 20 minutes so it is rather lengthy, but I hope that y'all love it. Let me know if you have any questions about this video.
I hope that you found this post helpful as you begin skimming academic books. Reading is fun, but don't feel that you need to read every single word of every book that you read for class. I wish I had known these tips and tricks when I started graduate school in 2015. It would have saved me SO MANY restless nights during my first semester of graduate school.
What is your best skimming tip for articles or books?
I need to try your tips.
This is a great post for college students. I tutor academic writing, and many students find it difficult to keep up with reading academic texts without getting confused or overwhelmed. This advice will help a lot of students find their way through difficult readings and better understand the content. Thanks. I’ll be sure to pass this along. BTW I love the Pomodoro technique too!