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How To Quickly Catch The Main Idea of a Book or Article

No matter how much they're told not to do it, one thing's for certain: students always have, always do, and probably always will cram for tests.

It's not a good idea on any level. No academic study has found it to be an effective strategy for knowledge retention, and most students would agree that it makes tests more stressful than regular revision would.

But the "skimming" principle behind cramming is one that has merit. Being able to quickly get the gist of a text is a great way to start and finish a round of reading, and an excellent short-term revision method when all you need is a reminder of a text's contents. All of us have done it at one point or another, whether we admit it or not. 

If you're one of the brave few who'll own up to it, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your skimming! They're arranged in order of easiest to hardest, so you can start with the first and work your way through if you want.

  1. Read the table of contents and chapter headings.

It's a basic one to start off with, but the simplest solution is often the best one. It's both a good idea when reading a text for the first time (to prepare yourself for what's to come) and when revisiting it (as a refresher of the text's main points.)

The chapters of a book are usually arranged in a logical order, whether that's chronologically in a non-fiction book or by stages of character development in a novel. Chapter titles and tables of content are the most bite-sized rendition of chapter content you're likely to get, but they're still useful for kicking your brain into learning mode before deeper study begins.

  1. Read (and keep) a synopsis of longer texts.

In general, it's a good idea for students to write their own synopsis of longer texts as they go, updating for each chapter and significant plot point/moment of development that comes up. That way, when it's time to revise the text, they'll have a synopsis ready-made in their own words that covers the most important points of the text.

But if a student hasn't thought ahead to do this, there's no shame in visiting a website like SparkNotes or borrowing a friend's notes. Reading any synopsis is a great way to remind yourself of a text's contents, and an essential first step in revisiting a book you haven't touched in a while. Online synopses vary wildly in quality, so it might be a good idea to ask a teacher/tutor for advice on where to find one. However you go about it, reading a synopsis is both a very popular and valuable tool for revision that shouldn't be overlooked.

  1. Read the introduction/ending of shorter texts and the opening/closing segments of longer texts.

But what about texts that have no synopses available - ones that are too short, perhaps, or that don't lend themselves well to such abbreviation?

In those circumstances, the next best thing is reading the introductory and closing paragraphs or sections of the text. In non-fiction, most introductions and endings are used as simple descriptions of what the content will be/was about.

For example, the introduction might say something like: "In this piece, I will discuss X, Y, Z." The ending might then say "After having discussed X, Y, Z, you can see why I'm right in thinking ______." Finding and listing any points of overlap in these sections is a good way to identify the main points of a text, and can be used both to revise and contextualise what you're reading.

  1. Check for repeated points and key phrases throughout the text.

When reading a text for the purpose of analysing its contents or answering questions about it, the most important thing is that you understand the author's intention in writing it. The previous three points address this through reading the author's chosen headings (indicating intent), scanning a synopsis (a description of content), and examining the introduction and ending of a text for a quick glimpse of how the author developed their points throughout.

This last idea is the most involved of the four: reading through a text in its entirety (or close enough) and checking for repeated points and key phrases you can use to better understand the author's intent in writing it. Chapter headings, synopses and opening paragraphs all give glimpses of what the author might want to talk about in the text, but the most surefire way to see what the author is thinking is to read what the author has written. 

This works for both fiction and non-fiction; repeated themes in a character's development can be used to give a more accurate description of their personality for an essay question, just as repeated concepts in a theory or hypothesis show you what to consider when examining its merit.

Ideally, students will remember to do this on their first time reading a text, giving them valuable notes to work with when revision time comes. But if they don't, using a synopsis/chapter list to find specific points to re-read is almost as good.

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