The daily life of scholars, scientists and engineers in the US involves a great deal of challenging reading. We cannot take the time to read every word. We must scan, which means quickly find the most important contents—the “news.” Luckily, effective writers have developed a number of conventions that allow us to find our way through documents easily and retrieve the information we seek.
A clear understanding of the general organization and “logic” of professional documents is an essential tool for efficient reading. We expect a document to explain the research project’s purpose, relevance, and outcome in the first sections that we read. We also understand that many professional documents are deliberately repetitive. Some of the most important information is stated in several different places within one paper. For example, many documents provide key information (e.g., results of a research project) in three places: Between the title and the body of the paper, as an abstract or executive summary; in a more detailed subtitled section of the body that focuses on that information; and at the end of a paper, in a summary paragraph.
In fact, we should closely study a document’s appearance, including titles and subtitles. These signals attract our attention because they are generally highlighted by bold font and extra space in the document. Rather than reading from the start of a paper to the end, we can use the key terms provided in these organizational devices to lead us to the section or subsection of most interest. For example, the following subheadings clearly indicate the information we will find in these sections of a paper: “Research objectives” “Theoretical study” and “Preliminary results.”
Skilled readers also benefit from the conventions of English paragraph structure. All formal documents are composed of paragraphs. A change in paragraphs is signaled by indenting the first line, or by including an extra line between them. This use of space allows us to identify and move between paragraphs easily. Why is it important to be able to navigate between paragraphs? The first sentence or two provides its key message. The rest of the sentences in a paragraph provide details that support the general message. In the sections of a paper that hold less interest, we often read only the first two sentences of a paragraph—that is, we skim—before we move on to the next paragraph. To ensure that we notice important details embedded in a paragraph, writers can provide a list, table or figure, which is formatted to draw our attention.
In addition to these organizational, formatting and paragraphing conventions, we can identify signals at the sentence level to help us skim effectively. Standard phrases frequently appear at the start of topic and other sentences to indicate the kind of information that follows. For example, the phrase “In addition” at the start of this paragraph signals that more tools for professional reading will be presented. A writer can signal constraints, problems or disagreements with “however” or “on the other hand.” At the start of the next paragraph, the phrase “in sum” signals that this short reading has come to an end.
In sum, professional writers and readers in the US work within a set of rules that allow the reader to retrieve information from a document efficiently. One good test of reader-friendly writing is to see if you can construct a summary of the key content of a document using only the first two sentences of each paragraph. Does this document pass the test?
Task: Define scan and skim.