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You hear the phrase “constructive criticism” a lot, don’t you? Sometimes people use it in the way that F-22 jets deploy flares against heat-seeking missiles—to draw attention away from them and off to something else. “Don’t be so sensitive; I was just offering constructive criticism.”

I’ve thought about doing a post on criticism and feedback for a while now, so this has been a long time coming. In this next few hundred words, we’ll go over (briefly) the difference between critique and feedback, and which one is more helpful in different situation.  I’ll close by talking about how I give constructive criticism, why that criticism is constructive, and some easy ways to make your own critiques more constructive as well. I don’t know much about critiquing sculpture, but I do know how to critique writing, and that’s what I’ll be drawing on throughout this post.

First of all, like any good philosopher, I’m going to get us clear on our terms before anything fun happens. This is where all the important moves occur in a philosophical text—at the very beginning, when you decide what words mean. When we define the meaning of our terms, we choose what we want to emphasize about them, and what we want to downplay. Define your terms adroitly enough, and you can change the entire interpretation of your text.

(So the next time you have to read something that doesn’t seem quite right, look at the way they introduce their terms, and the way they are defining their words. Chances are, they’re doing some work “off the page”—by changing the definitions of their words in mid-page, or by using a different definition than you are.)

So what, exactly, is criticism? Isn’t it the same thing as feedback?

Well, yes. The way most of us talk about criticism and feedback, you can fairly safely use the two words as meaning the same thing. But the point I want to make in this blog post requires me to separate the two of them, to drill down through the “general” meaning and make a big deal about the subtle difference between the two.

Feedback is a response. It’s also an A/V term (that stands for audiovisual, for those of you who aren’t tech-savvy), more specifically, an audio term. In a recording- tech sense, feedback is what happens when there is an overlap between an input and an output, e.g. (for example) a microphone within range of a speaker. I mention this to help make a point in a few sentences, but I’m going to use a semi-psychological definition for feedback, though, because using that definition helps me to explain why I am right.

The way I always think about feedback is as a response. Audio feedback is a response to something occurring in the environment. In behavioral psychology, feedback is the response the brain gets following an action. So if you are a rat in an experiment, you push a button and get feedback. That feedback can be positive (you get a delicious raisin) or negative (you get a terrifying and painful electric shock).  The feedback then affects your behavior: if you receive positive feedback for pushing the button, you are going to push the button more often. If you get negative feedback for pushing the button, you are going to want to stop pushing the button as quickly as possible.  So when would you give feedback in this sense? Well, when you want to encourage or discourage activity. For example, when you show up late to a party and someone saved you a slice of cake, you thank them, giving them positive feedback which makes them want to perform similar actions in the future. If someone steps on your toe, you give them negative feedback by saying “OUCH THAT HURT YOU SON OF A”, to make them want to think twice before stepping on your toe again.

Criticism is slightly different in this view. If feedback is a response, then in the context of art, feedback is your response to a piece. Responses differ from one person to the next. Some people love Thoreau. Others can’t stand poetry at all. Some people like Tim Burton’s films, while others dislike the dark, gothic atmosphere his works project. Some people like Taylor Swift’s music. Others are wrong.

The point is; feedback is what you think about a piece. If you say “I loved that movie!” then you’re giving feedback. If you say “ugh I hate this song,” you’re giving feedback. That feedback then communicates to whoever is listening, either encouraging them to do something (watch the movie again, or talk about the movie more, or, if you’re lucky enough to be talking to a filmmaker, to inspire them to develop more films like the one you loved) or discouraging them from doing something (such as never playing that song again around you—or entirely avoiding songs in that genre). Feedback is a response to stimulus, which can encourage or discourage the repetition of that stimulus. This is how feedback can make or break a young artist’s interest in creating—if they happen to get only negative feedback—by sheer random change—then they will be sufficiently discouraged to avoid that activity in the future. Conversely, if an artist gets enough positive feedback, they will have the encouragement and reinforcement they need to go on creating.

Criticism is not just whether or not you like the subject matter, or the writing style, or the performance. “True” criticism is a careful analysis, with a totally different purpose. We’ll talk directly about writing now for the sake of simplicity:

Feedback is about whether or not you ever want to read the piece again, regardless of how good it is. Criticism aims to provide the writer with a way to make that piece—or the next one—better.  It is a deliberate evaluation of the successes and failures of the subject, which provides recommendations both on what to change, and what to keep the same.  When you offer criticism, you recognize the subject’s merits and faults equally, measure them against one another, and suggest ways for moving forward.

Now that we’re all on the same page, it’s time to talk about constructive criticism. What does this term mean? Well, remember, we generally talk about criticism and feedback like they were the same thing. We also talk about criticism as if it were negative feedback, which makes things even more confusing. When someone criticizes you, we interpret that as meaning they are discouraging you from doing something—which is, as we know, the definition of negative feedback.  In my opinion, constructive criticism is a way that we try to reclaim the difference between feedback and criticism—to emphasize that what is being provided is intended to make the subject better.

I think most people don’t understand how to give constructive criticism. Often, when people offer “constructive criticism,” they are simply giving negative feedback, discouragement that is badly disguised. Other times, when people provide constructive criticism, they focus solely on the bad things, and not on the good.

I’ve always found that constructive criticism works best—which is to say, it provides the most improvement in the subject of critique—when it incorporates both critique—an analysis of the subject’s faults and virtues, suggestions on how to improve—and positive feedback—encouragement to continue. I’ve written a separate little blurb about how to provide constructive criticism to writers. 

So when you go about your life, listen closely to how people talk about feedback and critique. When they say they’re giving constructive criticism, are they really trying to help you improve? Or are they just giving you negative feedback—discouragement? People use the terms interchangeably, so they might not even notice the difference unless you point it out—although you should also note for yourself, why would you point it out? To help improve the way they interact with others? Or to discourage them from giving feedback?

Being clear on these ideas of feedback and criticism can improve not only your ability to edit other peoples’ work, but also to edit your own—and change the way you interact with people in your life. Knowing whether or not you want to offer criticism or feedback can be empowering—because sometimes, you just want somebody to stop making racist jokes. Sometimes, people do things—and really enjoy things—that they absolutely suck at. Knowing the difference lets you ask yourself; “which one should I use? What do I intend to accomplish?”—which can make you more mindful, more helpful, and more encouraging to the people around you. And who doesn’t want that?

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

I like critiquing other peoples’ written work. It’s fun for me. People write the way they think, and it’s fascinating to see the way other people think. When I critique other peoples’ written work, I have a certain process I go through.  It’s taken me a few years to see that I even have a process—but I do, and I think it’s high time it was written down.

This sequence was developed critiquing essays and short stories. It works most directly for those—but you can extrapolate it to provide constructive criticism for something as long as a novel, or as short as a haiku. Be warned: this will take a lot of reading to do properly. But don’t worry too much: if you’re practiced at it, the whole process won’t take long.

  • Read the piece as a whole. Does the author succeed in saying their part? Did they end too early? Do they make their point halfway through and then keep talking for no reason? Strip away the Read the bare text. Can the text express itself adequately even without the idea in mind?
  • Re-read the piece as a whole. Focus on what the author is trying to say. Get inside their idea. What is the intention of the piece? Go beyond what the actual text says—go to the idea. Can you tell the idea of the piece from what is written there?
  • If you can get the idea from the text—why? That means the author succeeded. Where did they succeed, and how can they do it again next time? If you can’t—why not? If you can’t figure out what the idea of the piece is from the text alone, the author failed somehow. Where? How can they fix it?
  • What did you really like about the piece? Writers are not like numbers—they do not have a single positive or negative value. If you can’t find a single thing you like about the piece, the problem isn’t the writer. Read it over and over again until you know exactly what you love about it.
  • Now go through specifics, one paragraph at a time. What sentences are done really well? Where is the author eloquent, brilliant, flawless? What sentences are done poorly? Where does the train of thought get confusing? Highlight sentences in both of these categories—done well and done poorly.
  • Get out your grammar book. Hunt out the little errors. Deploy the red pen with ruthless glee.

When steps 1 through 6 have been completed, go back to the author. Start with number 4. Tell them the things you really liked, and tell them why. Once you have built that groundwork of positive feedback, move into number 3. If they succeeded in expressing the main idea of the text, congratulate them. That’s the hardest part of writing. If they didn’t, don’t just tell them they failed. Tell them how, and tell them how to fix it. If you don’t know how they can fix it, then your job as critic is to help them figure it out.

Finally, when you’ve taken care of that, you can move on to the small stuff—5 and 6. Explain the good sentences and the bad ones, and offer suggestions for how to fix the bad ones. At this level, it’s ok to not know how to fix the confusing sentences. That problem you can give to the writers—chances are, they’ve already spent time wrestling with that sentence even before you saw it. Finally, bring the grammar book out and fix all the little issues that remain.

And boom. It’s just that easy! You’ve just given constructive criticism to a writer. Now not only do they feel good about their work, they’ll have a good idea of how to improve it–from the global scale, all the way down to individual sentences and Oxford commas.

HELLO THERE SPORTS FANS

It’s been a while! Once again the vagueries of misfortune prevent me from explaining why I don’t update my blog more frequently, but suffice it to say that there were dragons involved. And time-travelling lesbians. And a magic sword.

ANYWAY, welcome to another post in the “Cheat Sheet” series, which contains posts designed to make YOUR life easier as you navigate scholastic settings! Today’s post is inspired by several conversations I’ve had with professors, and by many, many interactions I have had with students. These interactions center around writing, something which I, unusually, know more than zero things about!  I’m actually not a novice when it comes to writing (although I would definitely put myself in the “proficient to intermediate” category); I have been working on writing since before I understood what it meant to be an adult. I also demonstrate my proficiency with writing quite a lot, whether in academic work, in my blog (which you are reading), or my Tumblr (which is significantly more informal and contains a great many intentional grammatical errors).

The upshot of all this is that occasionally, people remember that I am a writer, and ask me to edit things for them. And sometimes, I remember this, and talk to professors about it.  In the course of both of these activities, I have come to recognize something–or, rather, several somethings. And it is precisely these somethings which dictate the course of this latest “Cheat Sheet”; things which I almost always tell anyone whose work I edit. In short, these are the three things which I will tell you to do with whatever it is you’re writing, probably before I even look at the title.

THE THREE ARE AS FOLLOWS: Number, Speech, and Force. 

So what the heck does that mean? 

Number is the easiest to begin with, because it’s the easiest of the things to become muddled upon.  What I mean by number is, quite simply, subject/verb number agreement. And by that I mean: are you making sure that you’re referring to the right number of things in every part of the sentence? If you’re talking about “either light or dark”, you’re talking about one thing. Because you’re talking about light. Or dark. Get it? So you’d have to build the sentence as if there was one subject. This is something everyone screws up (even me!), because language is imperfect and words are hard. Luckily, there are two ways of fixing this: One, you can look it up, and remember the rules for five minutes after you’re done writing, or two, you can use the second of our trio: Speech. 

When I say Speech I am not referring to Diane Duane’s ancient language of magic and wizardry. Sad for us all.  No, I mean something far simpler, and something that can really quite genuinely revolutionize the way your writing sounds and looks.

You see, the secret here is that writing is language. Written words are a representation of actual speech words, which we speak. In speech. So, in a sense, the “true” form of language is…spoken.

Take it back to its true shape. Read your writing aloud. And I mean read it. Print it if you can, squint at the screen if you can’t. Perform it. Imagine you’re speaking to an audience if you’re a poet. To a classroom if you’re an academic. Act out your lines if you’re a novelist. But bring the words to life. Speak them. When you speak a sentence aloud, you’ll more often than not realize that the numbers were out of order, or you typed a common turn of phrase backwards, or you were thinking of something else and accidentally put HAIL SATAN something in the middle of your sentence.

That is the power of speech, which I now give to you. You can even take it further and have someone else read it aloud for you! But then you might as well just have them edit it.

Finally, the most important of our trio is Force. 

In some situations, people don’t really express themselves as clearly as they probably should. When this happens in your writing, it can really make the point a little difficult to uncover, and take a lot of the “punch” out of your rhetoric.

For example: the two sentences above can be rewritten as follows:

People don’t express themselves as clearly as they should. In your writing, this makes the point difficult to uncover, and takes the “punch” out of your rhetoric. 

THIS is the advice I end up giving most of all in academic work. And by that I don’t just mean schoolwork; I mean theses, papers, editorials–anything meant for the academic eye. And I get it–it’s hard to take a stand. It’s tough to make yourself into a target, even if you are reasonably sure you’re doing so in good faith. I struggle with this every day myself: especially on a website as continually ideologically charged as Tumblr, taking up a firm position seems like a good way to be assaulted from every side.

But then one day I realized: What do I stand for, if I don’t stand for anything? What am I saying, if I’m not saying it confidently? What good am I doing, if I’m not certain in doing it? As Chesterton says; “The only intelligible sense that progress or advance can have…is that we have a definite vision, and that we wish to make the whole world like that vision.”

This, by the way, is one of many things I love about Chesterton. He is loud and pompous and full of sass and bombast. He is an unapologetic apologist, and therein lies the crux of his every argument: for Chesterton is always fighting for our right to fight.

From the same chapter of the same text; “…We may say a permanent ideal is as necessary to the innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish the king’s orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish the king to be promptly executed. […] For the orthodox there can always be a revolution, for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good anything but good.”

So go back to your text and strip out the unnecessary words. They hide in groups of one to three, in words like “probably,” “mostly,” or “really.” They gather in little insidious cells, in cliches like “for the most part,” “to a certain degree,” or “a level of.” Find them. Destroy them. Look at each sentence and ask yourself: ‘What am I saying here?’ As you expurgate these venal little vermin, you will find that not only does your writing become clearer, colder, and more powerful, your speech becomes so as well! Turns out, when you assert yourself in writing, you practice asserting yourself in the world. 

So take a stand! Pick your idea! What does it mean? What is its purpose? What are you SAYING? If you think it important enough to say, it had damn well better be worth saying–and if you’ve decided to say it, it’s worth saying well and fearlessly. 

That is all for now, dear reader. I hope these little tips prove helpful, or, at the very least, you found them entertaining.  And like every other book or blog or note ever written about writing: This will only help you if you are already able to learn this on your own. And if you’re able to learn this on your own…you won’t need my help to do so.

Until next time!

 

 

GREETINGS, MEATBAGS.

Welcome to another episode (?) of the CHEAT SHEET series, an area where I compile entirely random snippets of information that I have found to be useful in the past.  Today on the Cheat Sheet:

How to write a stupidly long paper.

This is a critically important skill if you are an undergraduate (Hell, if you’re a high school student) who is in any kind of writing-intensive class or program.  And like every academic skill, it begins OUTSIDE the classroom.  The first steps of this eight-step How-To guide, ideally, take place weeks or months before you start writing.  But I know that’s probably not how you run your life, so try to do Step 1 and 2 a few days before you start? Please? You won’t regret it.  (You might regret it)

Step 1: This is a critical step. Know what you’re writing. Read what you’re writing about.  Doesn’t matter what it is; there’s literature about it.  Read an example of what you want to write; are you writing an essay? Read an essay. (Montaigne is a good place to start; so is Orwell; both are masters of the essay genre)  Writing a novel? Read a novel.  But the bottom line is, you become a good writer by reading good writing.  Want to write a good essay? Read a good essay.

Step 2: Start writing before crunch time, but don’t start writing your paper.  Don’t write to the prompt.  Write about what you just read for Step 1.  Write about what you think about your class.  Write about anything tangentially associated with the prompt. The goal is to prime the pump and get the juices flowing.  DO NOT THROW THIS OUT. Keep this work in its own document.

Step 3: Now look at what you have written from Step 2, and at your notes from class.  If you’re lucky (and probably even if you’re not) you should have at least a few sentences in your writing that interest you.  They jump out at you.  You think “Hmm. I could say more about this.” Do that.  Grab anything that jumps out at you and plug it into your prompt.  Keep THAT in your Step 2 document as well, but in its own section at the bottom (or the top).

Step 3: You now already have some of your paper written, before you even started writing it.  Dang you’re smart. You go, Glen Coco.  Good on you.  Now it’s time to really begin.  Open up a new document and start writing your paper. I won’t tell you how to structure the introduction, or make transitions, or what voice to use—that depends on what you’re writing, and you already know that, because you read great examples in Step 1.  Write for a while.  Try to get halfway.

Step 4: Now you’re part of the way through your paper.  Take a break.  Do anything that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.  Eat something. Exercise. Build a giant robot. Grow a beard.  Don’t think about your paper.  At all.  You got this; don’t worry.  If you find yourself obsessing about the paper, don’t stress about that either–it’s normal to have it keep running through your head. Just keep exercising, building your robot, or growing your beard, and it will flow out of your thoughts.  Good self-care is key to every enterprise–and that includes writing a kick-ass academic paper.

Step 5:  Now that you’re all fresh and ready to go, return to your writing from Step 2. Look it over again.  Something new will jump out at you.  Maybe you’ll realize that half of what you’ve written was dumb.  Cut it from your paper—but don’t throw it away forever.  ANYTHING YOU CUT goes into your Step 2 document. If it doesn’t have a place in this paper, it will find its way into another one.

Step 6: Okay.  It’s the Eye of the Tiger.  Get into writing mode and slam it.  Don’t worry about quality. Just write until you can’t write no more.  Tie your prompt into everything that interests you about your Step 2 document. You might find some connections easier than others—and you should take advantage of that.  Develop those, and let the trickier ones retreat into your Step 2 doc. Let the writing find its own course. You were halfway at the end of Step 3; now take it the rest of the way.

Step 7: You should now be close to your character limit/word limit/page limit/final chapter.  Take a fifteen-minute break.  This is KEY.  I recommend a shower here. When your break is done, return to your document and READ IT OUT LOUD.  You’ll find a lot of typos that way.  Make edits as you go.

When you finish, go back and make an edit on that one thing that was bugging you.  If a section seems superfluous, cut it and drop it away into your Step 2 doc.  If you are intrigued by something you wrote, develop it.  Any really good sentence can always be clarified, reimagined, repurposed.  What are the repercussions of your thought? What does this mean for your field?  Keep doing this.  As your points grow denser, you’ll glide into the home stretch, and after re-reading it you should have a sense of where it’s going.  Bring it home.

Step 8: STOP.  Your paper should have an ending–I won’t lecture on structure–and you should have a nice fat document full of your fragmented ideas. You can dump that straight into your Academic Journal (if you don’t have one, you should make one now).  The relevant parts of your Step 2 document can be funneled into your next paper–so you already have part of your next assignment written before you start the process.

There are no further steps.  That’s it.  Your paper should be done.

If it’s not done, try one of these strategies for a productive break: 

Take a shower. Again, if necessary.  Sing if you can.

Pick a building.  Run around said building twice.

Build a beehive.

Pet a dog or other small animal.  In lieu of a dog, an undergraduate student will do.

Eat an entire jar of frosting.

Stare at a bright pink object for ten minutes and marvel at how green everything is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello reader!

Welcome to the ‘Cheat Sheet’ section of my blog, an area where I compile entirely random snippets of information that I have found to be useful in the past.  Today on the cheat sheet, I talk about my experience reading philosophy and anthropology–some of the most impenetrable reading on the planet–and try to explain how I do the thing.

To clarify: When I say I “do the thing,” I mean I read all the time.  I read things that are really quite incomprehensible.  I slam dense readings into my brain repeatedly until they start to make sense.

In fairness, it took a year of reading, several bottles of wine, and a lot of help from a man with a doctorate, BUT STILL.

This makes sense to me.

Today we’re going to talk about how to read literally anything, in any field of study, in such a way that you understand its ins and outs and all its little complexities.

NOTE that this is NOT always the same thing as reading QUICKLY; a large part of why I read stupidly fast is because I’ve been reading college-level for a vast majority of my life.  I read anthropological texts before I even knew what anthropology was, and I retained a lot of that–because I read them in the way I’m about to describe.

Before I go further, I should credit one of my professors with the inspiration for this post.  Turns out, he recommends much the same method of literary assimilation that my father does, and the same one I’ve been using for years to devour anything with words on it.

Okay, so remember what I said about me reading a lot when I was a kid? Let’s take a trip back in time to when we were seven.  Imagine we’re reading something that isn’t so complicated.  Something like this excerpt from To Kill A Mockingbird: 

To Kill A Mockingbird

 

Now, first of all, we’re seven, so we might not know every single word in this sentence.  For example, we might not know what stock-market quotations are.  The Mobile Register might also be a mystery, as well as the words literate and interfere.  But we know what Miss Caroline is saying, we’ve got that shit on lock, and we can figure out the general sense of what’s going on from the words that we know.

Later on, we might come back after having learned what The Mobile Register is, and looking up the meaning of interfere, and then the paragraph would make more sense.  We might even be able to puzzle out the significance of the word literate, and decide that we really don’t need to know what stock-market quotations are in order to understand this segment.

“Okay,” you might say, “But I came here to learn how to read graduate-level texts! Why the hell are we reading To Kill A Mockingbird?”  Well, first of all, because it’s an awesome book, so shut up, and second, that’s it.  That’s how you do it.

Let’s break it down.

So now let’s go back to Bourdieu.  Take this passage:

Theory Of Practice

Don’t panic. Deep breaths. Remain calm.   Just let your eyes drift over it.  Read the words you recognize and string them together to get a sense of the general point.

“The privilege in which all activity arises never more governs that activity than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to a theory of practice which is the neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a distortion as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and to decoding operations.”

OKAY. So we don’t know quite what that means.  We can sense that there are key words missing.  But find the parts you understand.  There’s something in there about the anthropologist’s relation to the object of his study, and how that causes a theoretical distortion.  And we know that distortion reduces all social relations to…something.  Good.  See those bolded points? Those are the parts we know.  We’re sure of those.  My professor calls them ANCHORS. That’s good.

Now we can read it again, from the beginning, and try to figure out more.  Maybe we can look up some of the words, and then we realize that hermeneutics means ‘the discipline surrounding interpretation of texts.’  So that’s another anchor.   Using the parts we know, we then try to figure out the parts that are confusing.  It might take a few passes, but eventually we will be able to read the entire paragraph and understand what Bourdieu (and it is Bourdieu) is saying.

Now blow that up to a whole new level.

We have a book to read, not a paragraph but an entire book, and this is the DENSEST SHIT YOU’VE EVER READ.  You understand MAYBE 40% of what you’ve read so far, and it’s daunting.

Well:

Step 1: Scan.  Read a few chapters.   Not the whole thing, unless it’s super short.  Maybe read a fourth of it.

Step 2: As you read, find your anchors.  Find the things you understand.  Try to get a general sense of what the book is saying.

Step 3: Put down the book and wrestle with the ideas. Try to connect the ideas (the ones you understand) to other things.  [I strongly advise that you] write down the ideas that really leap out at you.  These are reading notes.   By the end of this step, you should have a pretty basic idea of what the first fourth of the book is about, and you will be (almost) certain about the meaning of specific portions. There will still be huge parts you won’t understand. This is okay.

Step 4: Return to the book. Read again, from the beginning.  It’ll be easier this time; you will recognize your anchor points as you pass them, and you’ll read what you know more quickly. Try to keep it slow and really read it, really digest it.  You should be able to start to figure out exactly what the text is saying.  Some new anchors will jump out at you.  Excellent. Write them down, underline them, whatever, and keep moving.  You might be able to finish it this time, but if not, no problem.

Step 5:  After this point, you should have a confident idea of certain parts of the book.  Not all of it.  You should be able to talk pretty definitively about most of the first half of the book.   Take a break again. What I like to do now is to find a summary of the piece.  For philosophy, try The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Ask someone who’s read the book.  Look it up online.  You already know the first half–if you pay attention to the summary, you can try to start figuring out how the first half leads to the second half, even before you actually read it.

Step 6: You already know a lot about this book!  Getting to step 6 can take anywhere between half an hour and six hours…or more.  Some books are SUPER DENSE, even for people with a doctorate.  A Ph.D doesn’t give you magical powers.  But now that you KNOW the first half, and now that you have a very basic idea of the second half, stop and think about the book. Try to think about how its ideas are similar to other things you’ve read.  We learn by making connections.  Think of knowledge as a spiderweb: THE MORE CONNECTIONS YOU DRAW, THE STRONGER IT IS. 

Not to mention, the more you do this seven-step process, the faster it goes.  You will learn to read faster, because your brain will learn to start picking out key points and wrestling with what you don’t understand.

Congratulations; you can now talk about this book fairly confidently! You know the majority of the first half (and you have pretty good notes, if you took my advice), and you know roughly the arc of the second.  But we’re not done yet–we don’t just want to skim, we want mastery. 

So now for the final step.  You’re going to re-read the first half, and then go from there to the second half–reading from the first page to the last.  As you venture into unknown territory, remember to plant anchors.  Find something that is beginning to make sense, and slow down and make it make sense.  When you do, WRITE IT DOWN IN YOUR NOTES.

But now you should have an idea of what it feels like to read a text and digest the softer parts.  It should go faster than before, smoother. That doesn’t mean it won’t be unbelievably painful.  This could easily be the longest part of the process, time-wise.

But it does mean that by the time you make it to the last page of the book, you will know your shit. You might not know it backward and forward–you might not be able to cite pages from scratch–but you will be able to write an essay on the book now.  You can have a real, intelligent discussion, and you’re on your way to mastery.

So it’s not really a final step. But it is for now.  If you started this book and made it to the final step in the same day, then stop.  Take a break.  Relax.  Go do something that doesn’t involve thinking about this. The most important rule of reading academic texts is this:

It is impossible to master a book in one day.* 

*it’s not, but you really don’t want to do that if you don’t have to.**

**but if you decide to try, just do this, but without taking breaks.

CONGRATULATIONS.  You now know how to master a book–and in the process of mastering it, you will also produce a killer set of reading notes.   Those will be INVALUABLE.  When you write a paper, or a blog post, or anything really, you can just go back to your reading notes and drop them straight in.   And you will seem UNBELIEVABLY smart.  You will know. your. shit. 

This has been the Cheat Sheet.  Thanks for reading this 1776-word monster. Next time,  I will try and set down some other snippet of cutthroat academic trickery from my arsenal of mind games.  Until then, good luck, happy reading, and make sure to use adequate light sources!*

*if you’re reading on a computer screen, make sure the brightness is set so that you can clearly see the text, but not too much brighter than the surrounding environment. That will reduce eye strain, which means you can read longer.