How do you read for research?

Reading for research is different than reading for fun. Research comes with a purpose, and it’s helpful to have that purpose at least sketched out before picking up a research book. Otherwise you’ll end up having to go back and re-read more often than not. So: how do I read for research?

Short answer: with two highlighters and a pen.

Longer answer: it depends on whether it’s for a specific project or just a general true crime book. For general true crime reading – I can’t even just pick one up for fun anymore because there’s always something I want to highlight – I stick with my usual interests: representations of criminals and victims. If something is particularly interesting, important, or aggravating, I’ll also fold down the corner of the page. (Clearly on books I own. Don’t do this to an interlibrary loan. Scan them and make your own copies if they’re, say, a Ripper book so rare you can’t buy one for less than $2,500.) One color is for normal highlighting, and the other is for the most important of the important things. The pen is to scribble bon mots in the margins. (These usually look like “wut” or “no” or “???”)

If I’m reading for a project, sometimes the colors explode because I know a number of things I’m looking for. My old, ragged copy of The Stranger Beside Me, for example, has been highlighted and sticky-noted in six coordinating colors. Purple is where Ann Rule describes the scenes of the crimes, but there are colors for how Rule describes Ted Bundy; how he describes himself; about his romantic relationships; and so on. I did the close reading with all these themes in mind and yep, it took quite a while. This wasn’t during my first reading of the book, either – I’d already read it and knew the general plot, which helped. During the deep dive I could therefore concentrate on the threads I was looking for without having to worry about completely understanding everything I read.

Adding the sticky notes also helped me see patterns. Rule jumps back and forth between talking about her own life, her friend and coworker Ted, and the mysterious “Ted murders.” Seeing where the purple cropped up, for example, as compared to the sections Rule wrote about herself, says something about the narrative and how she wanted to tell it. There’s also one important sticky note hundreds of pages in where she finally admits that her Ted is indeed the Ted. (The downside? Clearly there are a ton of sticky notes on there, so the super most important of all the important ones can get lost. They’re a different style, but it can still take me a while to find the quote that I just know is in there.)

I’ve learned since then, though – one of my more recent multi-color adventures has a key in the front. That book is a reprinting of various newspaper articles and documents from police files, and it’s not always clear who the author or subject of each text is, so the colors help distinguish between the major players. This one isn’t the result of reading through from beginning to end with a bunch of colors in hand, but using the index to go color by color and person by person, because of the nature of the project. I didn’t need to do another complete read-through, especially since I’m already rather familiar with the general topic.

I’ve tried reading in ebook format for research, and a couple books I’ve found have only been available as kindle versions so I’ve been forced to highlight and bookmark digitally, but that just doesn’t work as well for me. On the plus side you can easily download all the highlights from a single kindle book, including the location, which makes compiling notes easier than having to type them up, but on the other hand it’s all part of the process for me. I’ll do a lot of reading and highlighting and then a lot of typing up notes so that I’m reminded of various things I’ve read and I have a better idea of where things are going and how they hang together. I tried using a digital highlighter for a while, but the act of typing up the notes helps my memory. (Plus no digital highlighter is perfect, and correcting a scanned sentence just felt more annoying than typing up the whole thing.)

I think the most important thing, though, is to not limit yourself. I always have that extra highlighter as an “other” sort of category: I wasn’t specifically looking for this, but it’s interesting and it should be remembered. It might not affect my current project and its argument, but it could be useful to remember for a future idea. Or it might actually twist one of the themes I already had in mind and needs to be taken into account immediately. It always helps to know what you’re looking for when you dive in to a book or a chapter, but keep an eye out for the things you never expected, too.

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