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How to read difficult texts


Something which differs in a big way between school and university is the requirement to read hefty, complicated, and sometimes very confusing academic texts. Everyone at some point in their academic career will come across at least one, and most likely multiple, texts which they find difficult to understand or engage with initially. This does not mean that you are less clever than anyone else, nor that the person who wrote the text is any less clever than other authors, but simply because academic texts are sometimes just written in an inaccessible way. Below are our tips for approaching texts like this.


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What does the text say and what does it do?

The first, and most important thing to remember when reading a new text is that each text is trying to say something, and each author is trying to do something. The inaccessibility of a text is not a complete road block, but rather a hurdle that asking questions of it will help you to gradually overcome. Break the text down into its constituent elements, such as paragraphs, and carefully read through each one whilst thinking about what the author is saying and doing, respectively. This will allow you to follow the structure of the author’s argument through to the end, without letting difficult syntax or structure confusing you.

Who else has read this text?

If you’re reading a certain text as an undergraduate student, you can bet that publishing academics have also read, summarised, and/or criticised the very same text before. Whilst it is not advised that you copy their summaries in essays or tutorials, especially since many tutors will spot this from a mile away, sometimes reading what someone else thinks about the text can be very helpful in developing our own opinion. It is important to remember, however, that, whilst using a summary to guide us to the important aspects of a text is very useful, we must be careful not to read without a critical eye, making sure that we are not simply taking on board someone else’s opinions.


Remember: all texts are different

This is perhaps the most obvious but still a very important point to bear in mind. Whilst some texts may feel like reading a story - simple to understand and enjoyable to read – others may take hours, even days, to get our head around. This should not deter you from tackling the more difficult texts! It is no reflection on your abilities or intelligence if a given text happens to be more difficult than the last to understand, so if something requires hours of thinking and pages of notes, don’t beat yourself up about it; there are plenty of others who had to do the exact same thing! Also, always bear in mind that each text was written by a different author in a different time period in a different location; being aware of the context of a piece can help you develop a better understanding of its content and deeper significance.

Now it’s time to respond!

Now that you’ve got your head around the text in hand, try writing a summary of its main themes and content for yourself. Writing a simplified summary of the text will force you to come to terms with whether or not you have fully understood the text’s main arguments. As part of this summary, you should consider what effect the author’s writing has had on you; do you find it convincing? Has the author changed your mind? Do you agree with their main thesis? This not only helps you understand the text in the moment, but also gives you a thorough set of notes from which to revise or review the text in the future.

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