Reading & Writing Center
In high school, you probably read many poems, short stories, and novels. These texts are works of fiction. In college, you will be reading mostly works of nonfiction. You will almost certainly read nonfiction works in courses such as history, sociology, anthropology, biology, political science, English, and humanities.
Not sure what kind of nonfiction text you are working with? Don't worry. Before we dig into the text you are reading, let's take a moment to identify what type of nonfiction text it is.
Essays are a staple of professional and student writing. College students are expected to write essays for many of their courses. The following are characteristics of essays:
- They express the author’s opinion on a topic through discussion of evidence, stories, and/or personal experience.
- Essays vary in length, but they tend to be shorter works published in larger collections.
- There are many forms of essays, such as argumentative, persuasive, cause and effect, expository, and narrative. The type of essay it is will determine what type of evidence the author draws from.
Articles are works published in periodicals, such as newspapers, magazines, or journals. Articles are often assigned in a class in order to help you build context, or an understanding, of a topic, and they may be assigned for you to respond to or use as evidence in an essay. The following are characteristics of articles:
- Some articles contain purely factual information; for example, many newspaper articles report only the facts about a particular event. They try to remain as objective as possible, meaning their writing is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions.
- Some articles express opinions or arguments and are very similar to essays. For instance, opinion editorials, an "Op Ed," express the writer's opinion. They are published in magazines and newspaper, but they are not associated with the publication's editorial board.
Let's explore the wide range of nonfiction books you may come across or be assigned in a class:
- Some are informative and give background on a subject, such as a history or science books.
- Some make arguments, such as political books.
- Some are instructional, such as self-help or money management books.
- Some tell stories, such as biographies or memoirs. These of these types of nonfiction books can seem similar to novels (fictional books), but since they tell the true story of someone’s life, they are nonfiction.
Periodicals are works published on a regular basis such as newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. Works contained in periodicals are usually nonfiction though a literary journal is a type of periodical that publishes fiction or poetry.
Anthologies are books that contain works by a variety of authors.
- Anthologies can be put together in different ways. They may be a collection of works on a particular theme, written during a specific time period, or coming from a particular genre, such as essays, short stories, or poetry.
Textbooks cover a particular academic subject, such as history, math, or biology for use by students.
- They are informative by nature.
- They may contain activities or exercises to be completed by students.
What to look for when reading nonfiction will depend largely on the type of work you’re reading. In an English composition course, you will be assigned to read mostly nonfiction argumentative or expository essays, essays in which the author is asserting his/her opinion, making a point, or arguing a case. When instructors assign these types of essays, they expect that you will not only be able to discern the main idea and/or different arguments being made but be able to form your own opinion about them. In order to form your own opinion, you will first need to come to a solid understanding of the main point/s of the essay. Here are some reading strategies that will help you first identify the type of text you are working with, understand the text, and feel more comfortable with voicing your opinion in response to it.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of annotating a work – taking notes in the margins as you read. Annotating as you read is the first step that you should take in identifying an essay’s main idea and/or the author’s argument and forming your own opinion about it. Learn more about annotation.
Below, you will find more reading techniques that will help you not only understand the text but feel more confortable with responding to and questioning the text.
Knowing what kind of text you are engaging with is one helpful step you can take towards understanding it. Once you have identified what type of text you are working with, hopefully the reading process will be smoother. The following activity will help you identify the type of text you are working with:
Before you start reading, let's identify what type of text you are reading. On a seperate piece of paper, or on the reading itself in the margins, write your answers to the following questions to help identify the type of text you are working with:
- Who is the author? What do you think their goal is? Inform? Pursuade? Convince?
- Do a quick skim of the text. Do they use evidence? If so, what kind of evidence is it? Factual? Charts and Diagrams? Personal stories? Images?
- Do another quick skim of the text and get a feel for its layout and organization. Are there any headings? Subheadings? Chapters? Works Cited?
- Who published this work? Newspaper? Website? Journal? Magazine? Publishing company?
- Now that you have broken the text down, what does this tell you about what type of text you may be working with? How might knowing the type of text help you understand it?
Before responding to the text, it important to first gather a sense of what the writer is trying to say. If you are being asked to write about the text in an essay, the writing process can be much more difficult and slow going if you are trying to formulate an opinion and comprehend the simultaneously. For the following activity, use the same text from the former activity.
Have a pen or pencil and notepad ready to go, and use the following tips and questions to help with your annotations. Remember that not everyone will always agree on the same main point of an essay, so don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not you “got the right answer” because it’s not a test:
- Underline, and/or write on a separate piece of paper, what you think is the author’s overall main idea/thesis.
- Once you have identifed the thesis statement, look for topic sentences, or main points that support the thesis statement. Underline or write these on a seperate piece of paper.
- While looking for the essay’s main idea, the explicit message, identify any possible implied messages.
Nonfiction texts can often be filled with language that you may be unfamiliar with, especially journal articles in which the authors' are often writing to others within their field, and they assume that those reading the text are already familiar with the terminology. This can make the text difficult to understand. As you read, it is important to take the time to look up any confusing words or phrases.
Using the same text, use the following guidelines and questions to help you. Have a pen or pencil and a notepad handy:
- Look up any unfamiliar words, even words that you think you know, but don’t quite understand in the context of the essay.
- Write down thier definition in your own words. One technique you may use is imagine you are explaining this word or phrase to a friend. How would you explain it to them?
- If you are still struggling with a word or phrase, try having a friend or peer look at it with you. Ask them how they understand the word or phrase you are struggling with.
- Once you have an understanding of any confusing words or phrases within a paragraph or section of the text, re-read it and see if you feel you have a better understanding of it.
All texts, whether they are fiction or nonfiction, tend to follow a pattern. In this section, we will talk about how to break down the text and annotate acording to the texts organization. Authors of textbooks and other nonfiction texts, such as scholarly articles, use subject headings to help orient readers to a new subject, working like transitions from one idea/subject to another. Subject headings are a way of helping the reader keep a lot of information organized, another way to chunk information into manageable sub-sections, making the information easier to retain. Let's take a look at how your text, whether it is a textbook, article, or essay, has been organized. Picking up on these patterns of organization can help you get a sense of the flow of the text.
Using the same text, let's break it down according to how it is organized. This can help you gather a sense of what to expect but also what the text is about. The following tips and questions will help guide you towards a better understanding of how the text is organized. Have a pen or pencil and notepad handy should you want to write on the text or jot down notes:
- If using a longer text, such as a textbook or essay, skim through and get a sense of how the text is organized as a whole. Does the organization follow any kind of pattern? Does it use chronological organization? Spatial? Seasonal? Has it been organized around a series of definitions of terms?
- If using a scholarly article, skim the text, paying particular attention to the section headings. How is this organized? Does it include an introduction, methods, and findings section? Do you feel you understand the titles of each section? What can you gather about the main ideas or purpose of the text from these headings and subsections?
- Ask yourself: How does this essay’s organization help me better understand what the author is saying and/or help the author say it better?
- Ask yourself: Why did the author make the organizational choices he/she made?
If you are being asked to form an opinion in response to a text, it is best for understand it first, and once you feel confortable, we can move on to forming our opinion in response to the text. When responding critically to a text, you may be asked to question the author and/or their ideas. You may also be asked to connect the text to other assigned or research texts. The following techniques can help you do so:
Using the text you have been working with, or one that you are being asked to respond to, we are going to try out some different tips and questions you can ask yourself when questioning the text. Have a pen or pencil and a notepad handy should you want to annotate the text or jot down notes.
- Look for flaws in the author’s logic: inconsistencies, hypocrisies, flawed arguments, etc. If you find any, underline them and write your reaction next to the flaw in logic.
- Look into the author(s) of the text and get a sense of their background. See if they have expertise in the topic they are discussing.
- If they are drawing from outside sources, look at the quality of those sources. Do you find them reputable?
- Once you have identified their main claims, ask yoursef: To what extent do I agree or disagree with their claims? Why do I feel this way? Do I have mixed feelings about their claims? Why do I feel this way? Jot down your answers in the margins of the text or on a a seperate piece of paper.
- How might this text connect to other class texts or a researched texts I have read? How does it challenge, confirm, or complicate their ideas?