Reading Critical Sources Effectively


Many of us are lazy readers. We avoid reading things that clash with our own beliefs, and we skip material that seems difficult. That’s why we often have a hard time mastering new information. When the going gets tough, our eyes simply glaze over.

Don’t believe me? See if you can read this entire page carefully, without once opening a new tab or visiting Facebook.

If you manage to do so, you’ll learn a few tips about how to read articles and books critically and effectively.


Don’t Cherry Pick

A lot of students skim through articles (books are too long), hoping to find just one or two quotations that prove that they’ve done research. That’s why so many quotations come from the opening one or two pages of an article (or worse, from the abstract!).

Cherry picking quotations leads to confirmation bias: the ideas of others are referenced only if they conform to one’s own perspective. In addition, the original author’s general argument is ignored in favour of a selective engagement with a specific point.

Do your best, then, to understand and discuss the author’s main thesis.

Look it Up

Don’t know a difficult word or concept? Look it up. Google it, use a reference work—do whatever it takes to get to the same level as the author.

What’s the Main Argument?

Find the thesis quickly. Skim through the abstract and opening paragraphs and underline the main point(s). Then make sure you read everything else in relation to the central claim. Does the author make a convincing case?

Read Selectively

Skimming is an art. A lot of critical work will be irrelevant to your research, and you don’t want to get bogged down in material that may be interesting, but slows you down.

So learn to read paragraphs as units. Determine quickly what the main point of the paragraph is, and then decide whether it’s immediately relevant. Don’t worry—you can always come back to it once you’ve mastered the more essential parts of the argument.

Watch out especially for paragraphs that summarize the current critical debate on the topic (the state of the field). Just like you, critics fill up space by quoting each other. Get a sense of the key issues and move on to the author’s own argument. You can always read the other people later.

Who Cares?

It’s easy to get sucked into reading articles just because they’re on your topic, but if the argument is weak or uninteresting, don’t waste your time. You do not have to quote from every source you find!

In addition, ask yourself why the author is interested in this issue. Check out the author’s credentials and background, and try to understand what motivated him or her to write on this topic.

Spot the Methodology

Scholars love theories and frameworks that help them make sense of information. They may even spend a lot of time explaining their methodology. It’s your job to see if the facts fit the theory, or if a different approach might be more productive.

Over time you will become more aware of different methodologies, and you’ll be able to spot quite quickly the school of thought that influenced the author.

What Do Others Think?

While you should first pay attention to the author’s own argument, you can gradually zoom out and see how he or she engages with other critics. Does the author accurately represent the ideas of others? Is the tone constructive or antagonistic? Does the author quote only supporting views or is there some acknowledgment of opposing views?

As you expand your research, follow the chain of citations and read the author’s sources. Then come back to the text and re-evaluate it.

Check the Evidence

Don’t accept a single thing you read without skepticism. Even if the author cites sources in support, with a bit of research you might be able to find a study that disputes those findings.

So look for inconsistencies and weak arguments, and try to spell out the author’s implicit assumptions. Nevertheless, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Showing some charity in a critical debate demonstrates maturity and poise.

Take Notes

Master the text by taking notes. Underline, write in the margin, draw pictures, keep a notebook, make an outline—do whatever it takes to make sense of your reading. This will also help you write your essay, as finding the right quotation or reference will be much easier.

One useful strategy is to summarize the text in one or two sentences. This forces you to think about the entire argument. As a bonus, you might even incorporate the summary in your own essay in order to quickly capture the author’s thesis.


Reading strategically can save a lot of time and make writing the essay a more enjoyable experience. If you’ve already summed up the argument and underlined the most quotable passages, incorporating those ideas in your own writing will be a less daunting task.

Above all, think of reading secondary sources as participating in a conversation with others. As we listen attentively, and treat each other with respect, we can all grow and learn together.

Doing Research With Google

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The tide is turning, and using Google for research is no longer taboo. Indeed, most instructors will encourage you to discover the amazing resources available on the web. The difficulty is in narrowing down the search results.

On this page we provide some tips for making your searches more effective. Be sure also to watch our tutorial on Google Scholar (video above) to find quality academic articles and books.

General Advice

You’ll want your search terms to be as detailed as possible. It’s better to search for general anxiety disorder than just anxiety. The order of search terms matters too. Try place your most important terms first.

At the same time, you can always refine your results, so don’t be afraid to start with just a few key words and see what you find.


Specify the Type of Source

When you’re doing a search, be sure to use Google’s tabs to refine your search:

As you can see, you can search for images, news, maps, and more. If you click on Tools you can also display the toolbar:

Play around with the different options to see what’s available.

If you click on Settings you will be able to set some parameters to your use of Google. You can adjust your preferred languages, you can clean up your search history, and you can do an advanced search.

Use Quotation Marks

To search for a specific phrase, place quotation marks around it.

Search Titles

To search just the titles of websites, use the tag intitle: before your key word(s).

Search URLs

If you want to search URLs instead, place inurl: before your key word(s).

Search Text

You can also search just the text by inserting intext: before your key word(s).

Search File Types

One cool feature of Google is the fact that you can specify what file type you’re looking for. Here are some examples:

filetype:ppt (for PowerPoint)

filetype:pdf (for PDF documents)

filetype:xls (for Excel spreadsheets)

filetype:doc (for Word documents)

Find Older Versions

If a website has changed, or if you’re just curious about previous versions, type in cache: followed by the URL. Check out also the Web Archive to go back in time.

Find Similar Sources

Found a website you liked? Use the tag related: followed by the URL to find similar websites.

Find Linked Pages

If you want to see what other sites linked to a website or page, type in link: followed by the URL.  If you have your own website this is a fun way to see who’s sharing your site.

Find Definitions

You can use Google as a dictionary by adding define: to your search.

Search a Specific Website

If you want to restrict your search to a specific website or page, write site: followed by the URL.

Alternatively, you can press Control + F  to bring up a search box for the page you’re looking at.

Use an Asterisk

If you’ve forgotten some part of a phrase, use asterisks to indicate the missing words:

Search: Ne * * Pas

Find: Ne Me Quitte Pas (song lyric)

Try a Reverse Image Search

You can find where else an image has been used by right clicking on the image and selecting “search google for image.” You can even upload your own image (drag and drop it into Google) and Google will do its best to identify the image and find related pictures.

Search Social Media

Insert @ before a word to search social media. Add # to a word to search for hashtags.

Search a Range

Looking for a range of numbers or dates? Place two period between the numbers to indicate a range:

E.g., 1964..1968

Use OR

You can specify an alternative search term by inserting OR. Note that you usually don’t need to add AND.

Eliminate Search Terms

If you want Google to ignore a particular search term, place a hyphen (a minus sign) before it.

E.g., if your main search term is mongoose, you can add -cobra to eliminate a third of the results.

Search Old Newspapers

Google provides an excellent depository of old newspapers for you to search.

Have Some Fun

Finally, if you want to have some fun, Google has created all sort of in-jokes or Easter eggs. For just one example, type in “do a barrel roll” and see what happens. There are many more funny search terms for you to discover.


Using Google is increasingly an art, so try out the different tips on this page. They will help you find exactly what you’re looking for.

The Essay Format (CMS)


This is a quick tutorial for formatting your essay using Chicago style. Sometimes your teachers may have their own preferences, so do check with them if you have questions.

Note that many of these instructions are not found in the actual Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.). They’re included in Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (9th ed.).

General Formatting Rules

Paper Layout

Essays are printed on standard 8.5 x 11 inch paper, which so happens to be the default size of a MS Word document.


Since 2007, the default margin for any Word document has been 1 inch all around. Fortunately, CMS format has the same minimum requirement. If for some reason you need to fix the margins, go to Page Layout > Margins > Normal.


The most common font is Times New Roman, size 12 (though Arial is allowed too). You are allowed to decrease the size for footnotes (e.g., size 10).


Most of your essay should be double-spaced. To make this change quickly, first press Ctrl + A to highlight all text and then press Home > Line and Paragraph Spacing (symbol) > 2.0. Make sure you also click on “Remove Space After Paragraph.”

However, there are a few places where single spacing is required:

  • Single space your footnotes, but do leave a space between them
  • Single space the entries in your bibliography, but leave a space between them
  • Single space all block quotations (but leave a space before and after)

You should also single space any table of contents as well as any captions/titles for tables and pictures.


Make sure the text of your essay is left-aligned. Look for these buttons in MS Word:

You might think that justified text looks better, but your instructor will likely disagree.


It is customary to indent your first paragraph (use the tab button). Subsequent paragraph breaks should also be shown by indents, and not by extra spacing between paragraphs.

To get rid of extra spacing, highlight the sentence before and after the paragraph break and press Home > Line and Paragraph Spacing (symbol) > Remove Space After Paragraph.


The header section only needs to include the page number. To insert page numbers, press Insert > Page Number > Top of Page > Plain Number 3.

However, as soon as you’ve done that, select the option “Different First Page” as well as Insert > Page Number > Format Page Numbers, and start the page numbering at 0. By doing these things you will ensure that the cover page is not included in the numbering.

Cover Page

CMS research papers typically require a cover page. While there is some variation in what can go on a title page, the most common elements are the title (a third of the way down, in bold, with key words capitalized), the student’s name, the course, and the date:

Note that all the text is double spaced. For subtitles, place a colon after the main title and start the subtitle on a separate line.

Footnotes and Bibliography

We’ve covered these topics elsewhere. Check out our detailed pages on formatting your footnotes and bibliography.