Monday, 27 September 2021

On Reading Every Single Word

Confession is good for the soul, but it’s possibly not so good for advancing an academic career, even an academic career-lite such as mine.

I’ve advised on study skills for a while now. Sometimes I do so as part of a specially designed study skills course, but more often than not I aim to instruct via essay feedback. The wisdom I impart makes sense to me (naturally) but does appear genuinely to help students in my charge, though those accustomed to a referencing system such as APA often find the perceived eccentricities of the Chicago/Turabian style near-unfathomable (the least said about the MHRA style the better). My proofreading experience shapes how I dispense my guidance: I don’t have automatic knowledge or retention of each and every point of detail within each and every academic style guide, but I do have more than a basic idea of what the main ones require and how the guides should be deployed in a student essay or dissertation. In short, I’m well placed to advise on study skills, and I do it reasonably well and, on good days, competently.

But what do I advise? Nothing more than the standards of the day, really. I tell access-level students and undergraduates to keep their introductions and conclusions simple: open by saying what you’re going to argue and how you’re going to argue it, and close by summarising what you’ve argued and how you argued it, perhaps ending with a sentence pointing to how the subject under discussion impacts or includes other topics and themes. It’s important, I say, to ensure the argument is focused on what the essay title requires as well as having a natural flow in both content and structure. Students need to engage with secondary literature and – certainly from level 5 upwards – wrestle with the primary texts of the people or ideas under discussion. And because time is short and texts often aren’t, I suggest various kinds of targeted reading: know the sort of information you need for your essay and locate it as quickly but as accurately as you can; take note of abstracts; read the introduction and conclusion to each chapter; practise a mixture of skim-reading and focused reading; and so on. These are the sorts of things I advise.

But although these are the sorts of things I advise, these are not the sorts of things I practise myself – at least, they’re not the sorts of things I practise when it comes to my own reading of texts. I just cannot bring myself to adopt targeted reading. Actually, that’s not strictly true. It’s not that I can’t bring myself to adopt targeted reading; it’s that I can’t live with the guilt generated by my adopting targeted reading. When I did my doctoral studies in the noughties, I believed, rightly or wrongly, that if I hurried through a few paragraphs here or skipped a chapter or two there, my internal and external examiners in the viva would lean forwards, fix their eyes on mine, and say something like:

Terry, in chapter three, you claim that Calvin says x in the Institutes, and that’s true. But later in the Institutes, Calvin also says y, which would back up what you say – though arguably this contradicts what Calvin said in his Commentary on Romans, and you haven’t looked at what Muller and Helm say about this, or even Zachman, and frankly it is quite clear to me, to us, to the world, that you haven’t read every single thing that has ever been written about this particular topic and thus have proven yourself to be [clears throat] a Very Bad Person Indeed!

This anxiety remains embedded in me to this day. It makes me a slow reader. It means the piles of books scattered – well, not scattered, for scattered books are a sin – the piles of books lovingly erected (no sniggering, please) around my flat seldom reduce in height. And it means – and this is the killer blow, surely – I fail even to get past the foreword, let alone the first chapter. My eyes are larger than my literary stomach, though no doubt everything here is compounded by my proofreading job, which has habituated me to read every. single. word. slowly.

And so I have two sets of questions to ask my fellow academics, especially the ‘proper’ ones who teach actual (or, these days, virtual) classes in universities:

How do you read? Do you read every single word? Do you skim-read some sections and focus on others? Do you read chapter introductions and conclusions carefully but ignore the rest, only taking notice of subsection headings or similar? Et cetera, et cetera.

And if you don’t read every single word, do you ever feel guilty about this? Are you worried that someone else will come along and say, ‘Well, you didn’t read my book properly, or you didn’t read all of my book, because I make that very point in Chapter 9, note 443’? (I admit I tend to adopt this stance when I encounter dismissive reviews of my published work – O, hypocrisy, thou art my lover!) And if you’re not worried about these kinds of comments, how would you, or how do you, explain your reading methods and approaches to others?

I’m genuinely interested to know if I am the only person who worries about this sort of thing. But while I’m waiting for answers, I’d better finish reading every single word from one of the (many) books I’ve yet to review.


  1. i am a dedicated skim reader. Probably picked up the habit as an undergraduate when i was required to read 6 novels in a week and write an essay covering all of them. I learnt to read solely in order to glean quotations which fitted the essay title.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I take it this isn't troubling to you. I'm not saying it should be, of course - but I do marvel when people can skim read or do targeted reading without worrying about the sorts of things I worry about. What's your secret!?

  2. I think I read much more carefully if I am reading for pleasure, or if i am reading something which genuinely interests or challenges me. I have genuinely never felt guilty about skim-reading books that I need to read, or have been sent to review. Not sure what the secret is, to be honest

    1. Interesting . . . I suspect it says more about my perfectionistic mindset than anything else. Thanks, Jim.