Academic essay writing guide: learn to skim sources

Writing research papers requires a ton of reading.

If you've ever written a term paper before, you know it entails a ton of preplanning and background reading. This is particularly the case of thesis papers, term papers, dissertations, and honor's thesis projects, which require several months of dedicated research and information gathering. You have probably been told to scour far and near, collecting as many materials as possible, from a wide swathe of sources. You have probably also been told to create a long reference list, and to check the works cited pages of your resources, so that you may collect even more articles, books, and chapters to read.

However, one thing your professors may not have told you is that skimming your sources is actually an essential part of the research process! Almost all academic writers engage in some skimming from time to time, and the most productive writers are active skimmers who only read what it absolutely necessary.

Why is skimming a smart research tactic?

Skimming will prevent you from wasting time reading irrelevant research sources in their entirety. Skimming will also help you zero in on important data and key ideas without wasting time slogging through needless details and overly complex explanation from long winded academic writers. And it goes without saying, skimming papers takes far less time than reading them all the way through, so your prewriting stage will be over much quicker if you skim!

Skimming actually ensures that you can review more sources than if you read thoroughly. Think of it this way: your reading time is finite. Your capacity to pay attention and take notes on what you've read is also finite. If you skim through papers, you will not waste any time carefully reading information that is not important to your paper. You can finish papers more quickly, dispense with irrelevant sources, and finish your reading stack in a shorter time frame, allowing you more time to write.

How do you skim sources?

Skimming is about as easy as it sounds. It is similar to speed reading, but with better content retention. When you skim, pay close attention to only certain sections of a paper, such as the abstract and results. Read the first paragraph and last paragraph of a paper with more care than the rest, and rush through the paragraphs that are overly technical or unimportant. Highlight any facts that you might need later, and mark them with notes.