Academic Writing Tips 1 : How to Developed Speed Reading Skills

This tips is the skills that I developed during my PhD programme. The main purpose is to understand better and faster when I have to read many academic papers. Therefore, this skills is specific into school programme and also specific into one topic area, which is your own research topic. Note that I do not have opportunity make an experiment to test how effective this technique is. But at least for the proof, in my 3 year and 2 month, I produced 5 papers, and 3 were published in Q1 journal.

Why in the first place I have to developed this skills ? Because the first paper that I have to write was Systematic Review, and have to be finish in 1 year. Plus, there was a class assignment that at the end I wrote a Mini Review. So, of course in 1 year I read more than one thousand papers. You might wonder how could I did that ? Is it possible ?
Yes it possible, I proofed it (this is my systematic review paper in PEC)

There are four theory combined to achieved this speed reading skills.

First theory, I read this theory in 2008, but sadly I forgot who wrote it (he or she is from U of M). He mention simple rules what to memorize when you want to read a paper.

  1. Remember the title or understand what is the meaning of the title (title)
  2. Who is the writer and when did it publish (name and year)
  3. What is the aim of the research (research aim)
  4. What is the conclusion of the research (conclusion)
  5. What is the argument of the conclusion (argument).
    This could be done by understanding the discussion section, and method section. Is it the method adequate ? Does the method is able to produce the result ?
  6. What is the weakness of the research ? (weakness)
    This usually is written in the last paragraph of the discussion section

Read it once, do not try to re-read, or moving your eyes back to the previous part. Just make sure you got those 6 items to remember, it will be ok. Later, read that paper for the second time, to read the paper in detail.

Second theory, this is my own tips because of my experience learning new topics in every level of my education.
In order to better view of the field topics, reading many review paper is the best way to start. Most of the time, I avoid reading original research paper, in this situation. Why ? Since writer have their own perspective and style, these factors is reflected in their scientific paper. If you learn a new topic, you need to know broad understanding of that field. You need to know who is on right side, middle, or left side. And usually, the requirement of systematic review is to minimize the bias of the writer, I prefer reading systematic review and then continue with review paper.

Once you read between 15-20 review paper, you will have a good vocabulary in the field. You will understand the problem and challenge in the field. And you will understand which part of the topic (sub-topic) that is not well developed yet. And this is your opportunity to have research in this particular sub-topic.

Note that reading review paper is harder, so many facts written in one paper. But we have to do it.

Third Theory, this was taught by my supervisor, DR Thomas Kropmans. As you will see in my initial search, in my systematic review, there were 1998 papers needed to read. It is impossible to read in detail all papers.

  1. Divide your paper into three categories : junk, potential-to-read, and must-read
    Junk, doesn’t mean that the paper is bad in quality. It is just a paper which is way out of the context of our research topic. We have to keep focus.
  2. Start with read the title, when you found that the title is out of topic. do it quickly, move it to junk. Do not think about it anymore.
  3. When you pass the second stage, read the aim of the research and the conclusion of the abstract. Sometimes, you will find that the paper is so good only by reading that section, then move it tomust-read section.
  4. If you cannot decide whether the paper is good to read after step 3 above, and you need to read further in the main body of the paper, then stop here. Move this paper topotential-to-read section.
  5. After you done till step no 4, you should start reading all the papers in potential-to-read at a glance the main body of the paper to get the information of the First Theory above. Remember do not read in detail, word by word. In this step, you will move the paper either to must-read or junk section. By the end of step 5, you will have papers in must-read section
  6. Read one more time to gather all the necessary information of the paper in must-read section (according the First theory)

In this Third theory, you will find terribly difficult to decide whether one paper is must read or not. You will need background knowledge to be able to decide. You have to be able to judge and the judgment has to be valid. That is why, the Second theory is so important. We need to have good background knowledge, we need to study in order to be able to make research in some topics. And to be able to make research we should gather the information by reviewing the literature. Special for PhD student level, I will suggest you that in this process, you should make a review paper at once. Hence you will have dual advantage at once, you study all the theory and aspect of your topics also you will have a publish-able academic paper.

The sequence of doing step 5 in Third theory are :

  1. Go to research aim
  2. Read the conclusion. Is it good ? Do you have any doubt ? Does it make sense ?
  3. And of course you have to understand the weakness and the strength of the paper, then move to method section. Examine the method. Is it good ? Does the method use is adequate ? Does the method is correct in order to get the aim of the research ?
  4. And if you think is good, then read the conclusion to read how the author developed the arguments.
  5. And if you still not satisfied, go through the result section.
  6. Remember, the background section is bonus. If the paper is good, so much information regarding the theory of the topic is well written.

So, sometimes I stop at step no 3. Depends on my needs. As long as it can answer the First Theory, then it should be fine.

Fourth Theory, I knew the theory of quick reading for the first time was around the year 2000. If I am not mistaken, it was the subject of a class with the Prof Adi Utarini as the lecture.

What I remember in that class were :

  1. Do not read word by word and said out loud.
  2. Expand your eye focus. Instead of word by word ,  focus in the middle so you can read one line in one second. Train your peripheral vision to recognize words and connect the meaning of the words of a sentece.
  3. Start with focusing your eyes one small block at a time (1 block consist of 3 or 4 words), the move to next block. At this point, you might need 2 second to “read” a block, and gradually you should be able to do 1 block in a second.
  4. Once you mastered with this block reading, you go to full line reading at once. Start from 3 or 4 seconds to swallow the information, you should have target to make it into 1 second for one line.
  5. This theory also emphasize in capturing the important information (First theory) and then memorize it.


The relationship between headache and reading 🙂
Once I remember in one of the session in academic writing class, the professor explain this to us. His field is in brain science or something, he is chief editor in respected journal in the field. He told us regarding reading and brain. When you read, the brain works automatically to cluster the information. Just like in the library, the brain will manage the information, and put it into bookshelf. And brain will find the relationship between one information to another (inside our long term memory). So we do not need to worry when we read, and said to our brain ” hey mr Brain, put this information into isle X and bookshelf no Y”. Nope, our brain will do it automatically arrange to the right place and connect the relationship. And you should understand that these processes take time. What about reading and headache ? This because your brain is working hard to manage the information. When you feel headache, he said ” Keep reading, do not stop. Your brain is trying to find the relationship between your reading material and information inside you long term memory. You feel dizzy might happen due to unavailability of information to connect the relationship. So keep feeding your brain with information”

Enough with reading theories. Just start reading now. Yes Now.
Don’t be surprise that you will find a paper or papers that is so important for your research. You will read these paper over and over, you sleep, you dream about this paper. These papers is your holy papers 🙂

All in all, the point above is, to be able to do quick reading and understand the paper, you need to read a lot of sources (papers).
Happy reading