Manuscript March: Should We Write While We Read?

At primary school, you learn the “three Rs” – reading, writing, and arithmetic. I always thought that saying was deeply ironic. In order for those to be three Rs, you need to be both a poor speller and a terrible enunciator: reading, riting, and ’rithmetic. As a schoolgirl, it struck me as a bit odd that the catchphrase for those core skills only made sense if you didn’t possess them.

Now that we’re in the most advanced stages of our educations, we seem to go back to the basics. Reading and writing (and for those working with quantitative methods, arithmetic) become, once more, the bread and butter of our scholastic activities.

The question is: do reading and writing really go together? Is it best to read with a pen in hand and scrawl in the margins, or is it better to hold back the ink until you’ve digested what you’ve read? In other words: are reading and writing really a pair, or are we simply forcing them to fit together?

To some extent, this has to be a matter of personal choice. I simply must write in order to process my responses to an article or book, whereas others may prefer to think or talk in order to achieve the same goal. For me, the act of writing-while-reading is not about creating a record of what I’ve read (usually the notes are incomprehensible anyway) – it’s more about filtering the text I’m reading through my own brain and my own words. It keeps me alert and engaged.

It also leaves me with articles and books that are part texts, part artworks. The books I’ve worked on most intensely over the last few years are covered in so many feathery post-it tags that they look like tropical macaws.

These books have more fluoro than my t-shirt drawer in the early 90s.

And the marginalia! I have perfected the art of scrawling in tiny script in order to fit thousand-word ruminations into the inch-wide margins of research articles. Sometimes I have so many words, and so little space, that I write over the writing, creating densely layered (and totally unreadable) patterns of text.

But is this all a waste of time? Would I be better off casting my pen aside until I finish reading the article? And in the bigger picture: is it better to hold off writing any of your thesis at all until you’ve read everything that might feed into it? It’s the age-old question: what came first, the literature or the review?

What do you think? Do you write while you read? Or do you like to delay writing until you’re sure of what you’ve read?

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

5 thoughts on “Manuscript March: Should We Write While We Read?

  1. I always aim to write a one page summary of a chapter or journal article. While I read the article I make a sort of random mindmap/brainstorm/list that I use to get an overall idea of the article, which helps me write my summary. Without a summary in a few weeks/days I have to re-read the whole article to have any idea what it was about.

    1. That’s a great idea! Very handy for processing the material. It must be helpful to be able to brush up on your sources before talking to supervisors / examiners as well.

  2. I like to read with post-it marker tabs that I stick to the highlights that appeal to me. That way I can maintain my connection with what it is I’m reading. Afterwards, sometimes much later, I’ll type up the quotes that jumped out at me, occasionally with comments added.

    I don’t write in longhand, or print out articles, preferring to read them on-screen, though I do like reading books directly.


    1. Do you have a preferred method for attaching notes to what you read onscreen? I’ve seen some eReaders that have note-taking and highlighting abilities but haven’t tried them out myself.

      1. Since most of the articles come in pdf format and I have Adobe Acrobat (not just Acrobat Reader), I can select portions to bookmark, copy into Zotero, add notes, highlight … and that combination serves my purposes well, because Zotero is searchable, and can have either a link to the article or the whole article attached even. Highlighting inspiring parts is my equivalent of putting a post-it flag into a book. 🙂

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