If you’ve decided to continue using a text, you will need to figure out what the text is actually saying and whether the information it offers is useful to you.
Since each primary source is different, there isn’t one set of steps that can help you figure out what’s most important about the text. Read carefully and use your judgment.
Scholarly writing differs from other writing in that most scholarly works clearly state their intentions, and then proceed to prove their claims in a systematic way. By paying attention to structural conventions that shape most academic writing, you can find information more quickly.
Think of this as trying to distinguish what makes up the mystery mush. Start with the big picture: Is it a pasta dish? Is it a meat dish? Understanding these overarching categories can help you decide what other parts of the dish you want to focus on. When you get into the details, remember that some ingredients will affect the flavor more strongly than others: butter might be an ingredient, but it’s less noticeable than broccoli or peas, which really change the flavor and composition. Be strategic about your analysis, and remember that understanding what you’re looking for helps you find the information you need. (In this case, it’s ok to be a picky eater!)
Look at the way the book, article, or even excerpt, is organized as a whole.
For a book:
Start with the table of contents:
How has the author organized the chapters, or sections within chapters? For example: are they chronological? Or are they organized around a particular research question or theme?
Read (or skim) the introduction of the book:
Often the introduction of a scholarly book will clearly state the author’s argument, the kinds of evidence she is using to make the argument, and the aims of each individual chapter. Closely reading the introduction can save you a LOT of time.
If there is a conclusion, it can be helpful to read (or skim) that as well, as many authors will synthesize their argument one final time.
Conclusions are often the space where author identifies the broader impact of her work, or indicates directions for further research.
At this stage you may already be able to determine that a text is not useful to you. Consider whether looking at it from a different angle could be useful. If not, stop reading and find a new text.