Reading scholarly material requires a new set of skills. You simply cannot
read scholarly material as if it were pleasure reading and expect to comprehend
it satisfactorily. Yet neither do you have the time to read every sentence
over and over again. Instead, you must become what one author calls a "predatory"
reader. That is, you must learn to quickly determine the important parts
of the scholarly material you read. The most important thing to understand
about a piece of scholarly writing is its argument. Arguments have three
components: the problem, the solution, and the evidence. Understanding the
structure of an essay is key to understanding these things. Here are some
hints on how to determine structure when reading scholarly material:
- Think pragmatically. Each part of a well-crafted
argument serves a purpose for the larger argument. When reading, try
to determine why the author has spent time writing each paragraph. What
does it "do" for the author's argument?
- Identify "signposts." Signposts are the basic structural
cues in a piece of writing. Is the reading divided into chapters or
sections? Are there subheads within the reading? Subheads under subheads?
Are the titles clearly descriptive of the contents, or do they need
to be figured out (as in titles formulated from quotations)? Are there
words or concepts in the titles (of the piece, and of subheads) that
need to be figured out (such as novel words, or metaphors)?
- Topic sentences. Topic sentences (usually the first
sentences of each paragraph) are miniature arguments. Important topic
sentences function as subpoints in the larger argument. They also tell
you what the paragraph that follows will be about. When reading, try
to identify how topic sentences support the larger argument. You can
also use them to decide if a paragraph seems important enough to read
- Evidence. Pieces of evidence -- in the form of primary
and secondary sources -- are the building blocks of historical arguments.
When you see evidence being used, try to identity the part of the argument
it is being used to support.
- Identify internal structures. Within paragraphs, authors create
structures to help reader understand their points. Identify pairings
or groups of points and how they are telegraphed. Where are they in
the hierarchy of the argument? Hierarchy of major points is very important,
and the most difficult to determine. Is the point a major or a minor
one? How can you tell?
- Examine transitions. Sometimes transitions are throwaways,
offered merely to get from one point to another. At other times, they
can be vital pieces of argument, explaining the relationship between
points, or suggesting the hierarchy of points in the argument.
- Identify key distinctions. Scholars often make important
conceptual distinctions in their work.
- Identify explicit references to rival scholarly positions.
Moments when a scholar refers directly to the work of another scholar
are important in understanding the central questions at stake.
- Stay attuned to strategic concessions. Often authors
seem to be backtracking, or giving ground, only to try to strengthen
their cases. Examine such instances in your readings closely. Often,
these signal moments where authors are in direct conversation with other
scholars. Such moments may also help steer you toward the thesis.
- Remember that incoherence is also a possibility.
Sometimes it is very difficult to determine how a section of a piece
is structured or what it's purpose in the argument is. Remember that
authors do not always do their jobs, and there may be incoherent or
unstructured portions of essays. But be careful to distinguish between
writing that is complex and writing that is simply incoherent.
Finally, remember that you cannot read each piece of scholarship
closely from start to finish and hope to understand its structure. You
must examine it (or sections of it) several times. It is much better to
work over an article several times quickly -- each time seeking to discern
argument and structure -- than it is to read it once very closely.