Reading McAfee

Reading strategically might well help us read more effectively. In this series of exercises based on a two page article by Andrew McAfee, we’ll explore four reading and note-taking strategies

  • Skimming, for an impression, overview
  • Scanning, for specific information: what is the author doing?
  • Reading Intensively, for our present purposes
  • Reading Extensively, stitching a long text together and putting it into context


Before we jump into the text and start reading it like a mystery story, as some of us often do, it might be helpful to develop the skills of an eagle surveying the landscape before diving down for a kill.

In this exercise, we’ll survey the landscape, set up our first markers in the Outline View of MS Word, and ask a couple of very basic questions: Why are we here? And what do we hope to find out?

  • Initial survey To get a good idea of how long, short, fat, thin, and where we might find what, skim to article, reading just enough to be able to identify and draw lines between major sections, circle the interesting keywords, and so get a general idea of what is there and where
  • Setting up our notes Open up and save a Word file, shift to the Outline View, set the article title in Heading 2, name the major sections in Heading 3, and place keywords in whatever section seems appropriate in Heading 4; if you are working with the text in the same file, set that original text in Heading 5
  • What do we hope to find out? At the top of the page and in Heading 3, type “What I am looking for and why?” and offer a brief, thoughtful answer

What are we doing here? We are studying how variously writers work with the fundamentals of research so we might recognize them when we see them and apply these lessons to our own work; the elements include:

  • Research Questions. What is the issue, where do you find it, how has the author put it, and how might you summarize it in your own words?
    • Acknowledgements. Analyze the academic and professional conversation you find here, who are the major players, what do you know about their professional relationships, and how are they relating to each other professionally?
    • Arguments. How do the participants negotiate the central issue, what are their positions and how does the author suggest we see things differently? What is his major argument and how does he make it?
    • Evidence. What kinds of evidence does he refer to and what evidence does he introduce to support his arguments?
    • Warrants. What is the glue that hold the arguments and evidence together: what logics, feelings, beliefs, and value systems are at work?


To find any of these elements we do well to map systematically what the author is doing, where, and how, and a good way to do that is to identify each paragraph (or groups of paragraphs) in a very special way: not as ideas, but as actions and best identified when you ask: “what is the author doing (to us) when he says …”

  • To help us identify is actions, we will using a listing of action verbs as prompts and when we determine an action we will type our name for it in a line above the text for systematic analysis
  • If the original text is set in Heading 5, which I reserve for quotations, then set your action verbs in Heading 4
  • Then, when you click “Show Level 4”, you will see just your analysis and so have a handy guide for the next steps

Reading Intensively

As our present goal is to learn about research arguments, your next task is to read for your special purposes; here, we are looking for signs of the basic elements:

  • Research Questions you want to learn how to put in your own terms, which you do by explaining them to others first, so in your notes include both the quote and your translation of it: in this way, you will train yourself to look for the larger issues wherever you go
  • Acknowledgements are for us the gold mine of any writer, because they indicate where he got his ideas and who he is talking to and so what community of professionals we might explore next
  • Arguments can be as simple as descriptions and as complex as comparisons, and you want to know the difference, so here, too, follow this list of action verbs so you might evaluate how sophisticated, or not, and how differently he might argue.
  • Evidence you note as well as you might want to check it out, consider its strengths and weaknesses, and explore alternatives
  • Warrants we set aside for the moment

Reading Extensively

Reading extensively is a matter of purposes, and for term papers and the BA and MA thesis, this depends very much on your purposes and what your discipline recommends — something typically arrived at through consultation with experts and what you learn from the materials and colleagues — so I will offer here a brief, introductory survey

  • Getting our terms straight For those of us new to the topic or language, often a good place to start is to explore the important Definitions, from dictionaries out into current usage
  • Digging the Work For larger involving interpretation, we often map the development of issues as the text twists and turns them and seek to develop an understanding of complexity
  • Stepping Back For current topics in business, we seek to put things into perspective by generalizing on a particular example; here, we might step back to research analytics, robotics, merchandising, etc.
  • Seeing it Differently One of my favorite strategies is to aim for leapfrogging, whereby I read more on the author, issue, and others participating in the debate to find those thinking “outside the box”