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4.5 When you get stuck

Sometimes as you read you will get stuck. When this happens, don't sit staring at the page; find a way to tackle the problem.

Reading requires you to ‘project’ meaning onto the words on the page.

When you are stuck it means that you have lost track of the argument and can no longer see what meaning to project. So, you have to find ways to reconstruct the argument in your mind. One way is to cast around for clues by looking elsewhere in the text.

You might look back to the earlier parts:

  • Check the title, the contents list and the introduction to remind yourself what the writer set out to discuss.

  • Re-read some of what you have already covered to firm up the arguments.

Or you might look ahead:

  • Skim a few pages to see what is coming up.

  • Turn to the conclusion to see where the argument eventually leads.

Another tactic is to use your pen:

  • Write down the main issues you think the text is addressing.

  • Try to summarise what you have read so far, particularly the part just before you got stuck.

  • Underline words that seem important in the section you don't understand.

  • Try to summarise the underlined words.

If you are still stuck:

  • Search for clues on the internet.

  • Look in other books on the subject.

  • Scan through your lecture notes.

  • Contact other students by phone, email or internet chat room.

Whether or not what you write is ‘correct’, the process of writing notes helps you get into the text. It makes you take hold of ideas and put them in your own terms. It helps you force meanings on to the subject matter and construct a base from which you can launch another assault on the text.

And if all this doesn't help, just skip ahead and try to pick up the thread somewhere else in the text; or leave it altogether and start on another piece of work. It may all seem clearer another day. In any case, there is no point in sitting achieving nothing.

Key points

When you are stuck:

  • Make an active attack on the problem.

  • Look for clues in earlier or later parts of the text.

  • Make detailed notes on the bit you are stuck on and on the preceding section.

  • Cast around for ideas from other sources.


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