Book Report Hack: How to Analyze a Book Quickly

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As an English Literature major in college, I had to read 4 to 5 books per class. This meant that within a 10 week quarter, I would have read over 20 novels. It was a lot of work, but here’s a technique I used to help me analyze the books quickly:

1. Read the Plot Overview First
You can find plot summaries of most books online. I recommend checking out sparknotes.com, cliffnotes.com, or wikibooks.org. Plot summaries can give you a general understanding of the plot before opening the book. It will spoil the ending for you, but it will help you focus on the major plotline while reading.

2. Read the Themes, Motifs and Symbols
Sparknotes.com offers a Themes, Motifs and Symbols section for every book within its database. This will give you a snapshot of the major themes to watch for. If you know the themes and symbols ahead of time, you can start highlighting any reference in the book that relates to that theme.

3. Underline, Highlight and Write Notes
After you know the plot and major themes, you’re ready to start dissecting your book. As you study, start underlining the key passages that relate to the major plots and themes within the novel. Then make sure to catalog all your notations on a separate piece of paper. Write down page numbers and a brief comment of why that page or section is important to the main theme or plot you’re studying. This will be extremely helpful when you start writing a report or essay about the book.

4. Read Journal Article Abstracts
If you have time, it also helps to search for journal articles about the book you’re reading. I don’t mean start reading through dense journal articles. That takes too much time. I just mean that you should skim journal article abstracts so that you know what scholars are thinking about the book you’ve just read. Simply visit Google Scholar and type in the name of your book. Read the article abstract to give you ideas of what to write about.

Lastly, if you really don’t have time to read the book at all, then start reading through chapter summaries from sparknotes.com or cliffnotes.com. It’s not the best choice, but it will give you some preparation prior to a test or writing an essay.

What Stephen King Can Teach You About Writing Essays

Stephen King wrote an autobiography called On Writing back in 2000.

In the book, King recounts his various experiences as a writer along with his strategies for creative writing and plot development.

Anyway, we found a great list of writing tips taken directly from the book. Even though this advice applies more toward creative writing, many of these suggestions also apply toward writing/editing an essay for a class.

Here are some of the most practical writing tips:

Get to the point.
Don’t waste your reader’s time with too much back-story, long intros or longer anecdotes about your life. Reduce the noise. Reduce the babbling.

Write a draft. Then let it rest.
King recommends that you crank out a first draft and then put it in your drawer to let it rest. This enables you to get out of the mindset you had when you wrote the draft and get a more detached and clear perspective on the text. It then becomes easier to edit.

Cut down your text.
Remove all the superfluous words and sentences. Removing will de-clutter your text and often get your message through with more clarity and a bigger emotional punch.

Read a lot.
If you want to be a better writer you need to read a lot to get fresh input, broaden your horizons and deepen your knowledge.

Check out other writing tips on the Productivity Blog.

How to Write Your First Draft

I’m finishing up grad school right now, and I’ve been extremely busy writing a 90-page paper. I also have another 20-page paper that’s due in several weeks.

I don’t have much time to spend on rough drafts, so I have to make every minute count.

Here is some personal advice on how to start writing your first draft:

1. Take a break.
Before writing anything, you need to take a break from your research. You need to give your mind time to mull over the topic. I suggest taking a day – or even a few days to let your mind soak it all in. If you don’t have the luxury of time, then take a nap before beginning your assignment.

2. Set goals for yourself.
Write a list of everything you want to accomplish during the time you’ve set aside to write. And designate a time for each task. Giving yourself a time limit puts pressure on you to accomplish your goal. It’s better to enforce a time limit on yourself (ahead of schedule) than writing your paper the night before it’s due.

3. Write an outline for your paper.
To get your mind focused, it’s always best to work from an outline. Your outline is a starting point to help you think about how your paper will be constructed. If you’re not sure how to write one – simply look at the structure of well-written journal articles.

4. Don’t think too hard. Just write.
When you’re writing your rough draft, you need to focus on writing. Don’t get stuck on trying to craft perfect sentences. Just let go – and let your mind crank out some ideas on the page. The sooner you start writing, the better. You can always polish it up later.

5. Write down every idea.
If you think of something interesting, but not sure how you’ll “fit” it into your paper – just write it down. Don’t worry about all the details. You can always eliminate it later – or find a creative way to weave it into your essay.

6. Talk about it.
One way to stimulate more ideas for your paper is to talk aloud about the subject. Pretend like you’re giving a lecture and think about how you would argue your case in front of your peers.

7. If you get stuck, move on to another section.
Sometimes you might run out of ideas on a certain section of your essay. That’s okay. It’s bound to happen. The simple way to defuse this is to move on to another section. Refer to your outline and find another area to work on. Sometimes I’ll just start working on my bibliography or abstract to distract me. The goal is to just keep moving along – and to keep adding content to your paper.

8. Take exercise breaks.
If you sit at computer too long, you’re bound to get tired. Make sure to take brief breaks to stretch and clear your mind. It will help you write more clearly.

9. Eat and drink wisely.
My last suggestion is to eat and drink wisely. I love to drink coffee and green tea when I’m writing – it helps me focus. Make sure to keep your body hydrated – and only eat foods that will give you energy. Try to avoid heavy foods that might make you sleepy.

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How to Start Writing Your Essay When Youre Struggling with Writers Block

Its easy to struggle with writers block.

Think about something too long or even research too long and you can overwhelm yourself to the point where you dont know what to write.

Or you end up deleting every thought that you type because youre not happy with how it sounds.

Youre becoming like the golfer who chokes on the green by missing an easy put or the basketball player that is missing all the free throws.

The problem is that youre feeling a lot of pressure to write a great essay.

Perhaps its the first essay youre writing for a certain professor or the final essay that makes a big impact on your grade.

Whatever the situation, it has nothing to do with youre writing ability.

You can write its just a matter of getting over this anxiety.

Ive been there, too and want to share five strategies to help you get over this writers block quickly:

1. Step away from the computer.
One way to get some ideas and reduce anxiety for your paper is simply to walk away from your computer for a bit. Take a break from all your research to let it all sink in. Do something fun or read something that you enjoy. I love to read humor books to help me reduce anxiety books by David Sedaris, David Rackoff, or Mark Twain.

Do something that will allow your brain to rest from all the work youre doing. Do some relaxing for an hour to get your mind off your paper or do some exercise. Just do something to get your mind off your paper.

2. Break-up your paper into little segments.
To reduce your anxiety, turn your big paper into little projects. For example, if you have to write a 10 page paper by next week turn it into 5 small writing assignments to help you get through it. Just thinking about writing a big paper in small chunks can psychologically help you get through it better. You might plan on just writing one argument per day or simply writing a rough outline one day. Break it up in a way that makes sense to you or try using my four-step approach to writing a research paper.

We all write differently and there isnt one strategy that works for everyone. That said, dividing up big paper into small chunks is a good mental strategy that can help you immensely. If youre reading this and need to get a paper done right away, here is a step-by-step guide to get a great paper done in one night.

3. Record yourself talking about your research when youre not writing your paper.
Most of our mobile phones have a voice memo app. A great way to capture ideas or to think through something is to record your verbal thoughts. Ive done this to capture ideas for articles that Im writing. Its a great tool to help you capture thoughts without writing anything. Freely talking about your paper (and recording those thoughts) is a great way to hack your brain into writing your essay.

When recording your voice, talk as if youre speaking to a friend about your paper. Talk about: what youre reading, whats interesting, whats challenging, questions you have, arguments youre developing, thoughts on your thesis. It might be strange at first but I promise you this method works to help you get a paper done. Spend 15 minutes every morning doing this while youre writing your paper and youll have a boatload of ideas and new paragraphs to write. Or spend 15 minutes talking about your paper after youre done writing to capture any last minute thoughts before you go to bed. Try this, and let me know how this goes for you.

4. Dont strive for a perfect paper when beginning to write.
One of the biggest problems that stops us from writing is wanting every sentence to be perfect and every argument to be ground breaking. Unfortunately, writing a great paper requires a lot of editing. Nobody can churn out a perfect paper without doing a lot of editing, deleting, and moving sentences and paragraphs around.

Think of a perfect paper like a photoshopped image of a person on a magazine cover. The picture has had a lot of editing to get everything looking perfect. The lighting, contrast, removing blemishes, smoothing, adding filters, etc. It can take dozens of hours to get a picture just right not to mention the number of people involved (photographer, director at the photo shoot, make-up people, lighting director, photo editors, magazine art director, etc). The same is true for perfect papers it takes editing time and often other people involved to critique arguments and make suggestions.

So dont expect perfection on your first go. Just start writing out the bones of your paper. Write out your arguments, some meaty paragraphs, your introduction, fragments of thoughts for future paragraphs. Just start writing and dont worry about how it sounds right now.

5. Start writing something.
Stop deleting everything youre typing and just keep writing.

You just need to start getting in the habit of getting words on your screen. If youd rather handwrite on a notebook, then do it. The goal is getting words down no matter how choppy or fragmented your sentences. Once you begin writing words down, youll start to see thoughts and paragraphs forming. I

ts okay to have disjointed and random thoughts initially. Just start writing down all the thoughts you have. You can organize, delete and group ideas into arguments later. It might help to give yourself a specific writing task to help you start writing. For example, you could give yourself a task to write down all your thoughts about a certain line from Shakespeare or all your thoughts about a specific argument in a journal youve read.

The point is to start writing some aspect of your paper. Dont delete anything (unless youre just fixing a typo) during your free writing. Just write until youve exhausted all your thoughts. This is a surefire way to get you to break through your writers block.

What has helped you start writing? What as helped you beat writers block? Let me know in the comments.

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How to Write a Research Paper – Step by Step

Ive probably written over 70 research papers over the last 7 years of school.

And Ive gotten to the point where writing research papers is like second nature for me.

Its not that Im a better writer than anyone else, its just that I know how to organize information quickly.

So here is my basic process on how I write my papers step-by-step:

Research Phase: Hunting and Gathering
This is probably the most time-consuming part of the research paper. Im a research hound, so I like to spend as much time as possible finding all the research possible. Its during this phase that Im doing the following:

  • Refining my research subject
  • Developing research questions
  • Consulting librarians for their insight on my research area
  • Reading journal article abstracts on the topic Im interested in

Organizing Phase: Reading and Writing
As Im reviewing journal articles, Im jotting down everything I need from the article before moving on; including: citation info, potential quotes, summaries, and any referenced journal articles that look interesting. Im also:

  • Developing a potential thesis statement
  • Creating a meaty bibliography
  • Outlining my paper
  • Inserting notes within my outline – and adding references

Drafting Phase: Writing
Once Ive written my thesis statement and completed my outline, its time to begin working on my first draft. Here are the steps that I take:

  • Just start writing something (I typically start in the middle somewhere)
  • Make sure to cite everything (I go overboard just to be safe)
  • Keep refining the thesis
  • Keeping modifying the outline
  • Pretend the paper is due the next day and just finish it
  • Take a day off after the first draft is done – dont look at it

Revision Phase: Editing Never Ends
Revising as you know means removing and adding content to make the paper better – which means nobody is ever really done. We just turn in our last and best draft. Here are my editing steps:

  • Read it aloud and mark any areas that dont sound right
  • Look at all the punctuation marks – especially apostrophes
  • Make sure every paragraph moves the paper along
  • Eliminate passive verbs whenever possible

So thats my strategy on how to write a research paper. I never feel completely done writing, but those steps help me get a paper finished that Im at least happy with.

What steps do you take when writing a research paper?

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How to Proof Your Paper Like a Pro – 8 Proofreading Tips

I used to work as a proofreader.

It wasn’t the most exciting job in the world, but it helped me become proficient at proofreading ads and documents very quickly.

Whenever possible, it’s always best to have someone else review your essay.

However, it’s not always convenient to get someone to edit your paper at the last minute (when most papers get finished).

So here are 8 tips to help you proof your own paper like a professional:

1. Read your paper backward
A surefire way to find misspellings is by reading your essay backward to yourself. This makes every word stand out. And this is a great way to focus on the punctuation of each sentence.

2. Read your essay out loud
One simple way to proof is to read your essay aloud. This will help you focus on the rhythm of your writing, your punctuation, and any glaring errors in your sentence structure. If any sentence sounds confusing, you should revise it.

3. Cut the fat
Eliminate passive verbs whenever possible.

4. Proof in stages
I always proof my papers in stages. This means that I’ll typically plan on proofing my entire paper in a variety of stages. For example: (1) Focus on every word; (2) Focus on punctuation; (3) Focus on subject/verb agreement; (4) Focus on argumentation; (5) Focus on pronouns . . . etc. You get the idea.

5. Pay attention to apostrophes
Examine every word that ends in “s” and ask yourself if an apostrophe belongs there. Remember that apostrophes should never be used to make words plural.

6. Focus your attention on every comma and semicolon
Scan your paper to find every comma and semicolon. Make sure you’re using them properly in the sentence.

7. Proof headers and subheads
You’d be surprised how often headers and subheads get misspelled. This is because most people who are proofing are focusing on the details, and they often miss the big glaring error right in front of them.

8. Proof in the morning
You won’t catch as many errors if you’re proofing right after you’ve finished writing. So take a long break before editing the paper.

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Five Tips for Writing a Successful Thesis Statement

Maxine Rodburg and the tutors of the writing center at Harvard developed a great article about constructing thesis statements.

Heres what they suggest:

1. A thesis is never a question. Readers of academic essays expect to have questions discussed, explored, or even answered. A question (Why did communism collapse in Eastern Europe?) is not an argument, and without an argument, a thesis is dead in the water.

2. A thesis is never a list. For political, economic, social and cultural reasons, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe does a good job of telegraphing the reader what to expect in the essay—a section about political reasons, a section about economic reasons, a section about social reasons, and a section about cultural reasons. However, political, economic, social and cultural reasons are pretty much the only possible reasons why communism could collapse. This sentence lacks tension and doesnt advance an argument. Everyone knows that politics, economics, and culture are important.

3. A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational.
An ineffective thesis would be, Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because communism is evil. This is hard to argue (evil from whose perspective? what does evil mean?) and it is likely to mark you as moralistic and judgmental rather than rational and thorough. It also may spark a defensive reaction from readers sympathetic to communism. If readers strongly disagree with you right off the bat, they may stop reading.

4. An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim. While cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline is an effective thesis sentence that telegraphs, so that the reader expects the essay to have a section about cultural forces and another about the disintegration of economies. This thesis makes a definite, arguable claim: that the disintegration of economies played a more important role than cultural forces in defeating communism in Eastern Europe. The reader would react to this statement by thinking, Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim.

5. A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible. Avoid overused, general terms and abstractions. For example, Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of the ruling elites inability to address the economic concerns of the people is more powerful than Communism collapsed due to societal discontent.
Continue reading how to construct a thesis statement . . .

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How to Write Abstracts

Ive been very busy these last few weeks working on a lengthy research proposal.

Its been absolutely exhausting – but it feels good to almost be done.

The last step in any research proposal is to write a comprehensive summary (or abstract) about what youre about to propose.

This might sound easy, but I find that this is sometimes the most difficult part.

How do you condense all your research into a brief paragraph?

It can be mind-boggling I know.

After spending some time researching abstract development, I found these helpful tips for writing the perfect abstract:

Abstract Style

  • One paragraph under 150 – 200 words
  • Use related keywords that people might use to find your article
  • As a summary of work done, it is always written in past tense
  • An abstract should stand on its own, and not refer to any other part of the paper such as a figure or table
  • Focus on summarizing results – limit background information
  • What you report in an abstract must be consistent with what you report
  • Correct spelling, clarity of sentences and phrases, and proper reporting of quantities (proper units, significant figures) are just as important in an abstract as they are anywhere else

Abstract Content

  • Motivation – Why do we care about the problem and the results?
  • Problem Statement – What problem are you trying to solve? What is the scope of your work (a generalized approach, or for a specific situation)? Be careful not to use too much jargon. In some cases it is appropriate to put the problem statement before the motivation, but usually this only works if most readers already understand why the problem is important.
  • Approach – How did you go about solving or making progress on the problem? What important variables did you control, ignore, or measure?
  • Results – Whats the answer? Put the result there, in numbers. Avoid vague, hand-waving results such as very, small, or significant.
  • Conclusions – What are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the world (unlikely), be a significant win, be a nice hack, or simply serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the previous results are useful). Are your results general, potentially generalizable, or specific to a particular case?

Read more about writing abstracts here . . .

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How to Conclude an Essay Exam in 5 Minutes

As an English major in college, I had my share of essay exams.

I usually kept an eye on the clock when writing, but I’ve definitely had moments when I ran out of time.

So here’s some advice from Harvard University on how to complete an essay when you only have minutes left:

  • Conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning.
  • Conclude with a sentence composed mainly of one-syllable words. Simple language can help create an effect of understated drama.
  • Conclude with a sentence thats compound or parallel in structure; such sentences can establish a sense of balance or order that may feel just right at the end of a complex discussion.

And here’s how you should never end an essay:

  • Dont simply summarize your essay. A brief summary of your argument may be useful, especially if your essay is long_more than ten pages or so. But shorter essays tend not to require a restatement of your main ideas.
  • Avoid phrases like in conclusion, to conclude, in summary, and to sum up. These phrases can be useful_even welcome_in oral presentations. But readers can see, by the tell-tale compression of the pages, when an essay is about to end. Youll irritate your audience if you belabor the obvious.

Read more tips on how to conclude an Essay . . .

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The Cure for Writers Block -10 Ways to Jumpstart Your Brain

As an English Lit. major in college, I had to write dozens of essays a quarter.

And, unfortunately, I got hit with writers block on a regular basis.

I tried to combat it by spending more time researching in the library, but that just made my problem worse.

You see, even though research is important it didnt help me write my paper. In fact, Ive found that research just helped me procrastinate more.

So how do I cure my bouts with writers block?

Here are 10 ways that have helped me write when Im not in the mood:

1. Relax your mind.
The more you worry about not having ideas, the more youll freeze up your mind. You need to relax and think positively about your writing assignment. Realize that everyone goes through writers block, and the cure is to relax your mind.

2. Take a hot shower.
I dont know what it is about a hot shower, but it really helps me refresh my body and mind. The hot shower helps me relax and focus on my writing assignments. Its also a place where I brainstorm easily. Take a notepad and leave it next to your shower door for when the ideas start flowing.

3. Write freely.
Whenever Im at a loss for words, Ill just start writing. It doesnt matter what you write, just write something. The very act of getting words on a page will help you build confidence, and help your mind to start pumping out your thoughts.

4. Write what you would say to your friend.
Sometimes it helps me to pretend that Im explaining the subject to a friend. By imagining a conversation with a friend, it helps me write what I would say – and this is a great way to trick yourself into writing.

5. Dont worry about punctuation or organization.
When youre struggling with writers block, this is not the time to focus on punctuation or how youre organizing your paper. You want to eliminate everything that stands between you and getting words on a page. So just write and dont worry about anything else.

6. Take deep breaths.
There are many benefits to breathing deeply in meditation, and one of them is to help you refresh your mind. I personally like Dr. Weils deep breathing exercises when Im feeling tired and uninspired:

  1. Inhale through your nose for four seconds
  2. Hold your breath for seven seconds
  3. Exhale through tightly pursed lips, creating back pressure, for eight seconds.
  4. Do this eight times, twice a day, everyday.

7. Move around.
Get your body moving and possibly even try writing in a new location. Just by moving around will get your blood pumping faster and will help you feel more energized.

8. Concentrate on a different section of your paper.
If youre stuck writing your introduction, just skip it. Start writing another section. Dont worry if you dont have the best paragraph structure – just write and the words will start to flow. You can always edit later.

9. Listen to music.
Sometimes listening to classical music or jazz can help you start writing. It doesnt work for everyone, but Ive found that it can help me block out any surrounding noises and focus on my writing. Try music when youre out of words.

10. Dont worry about failing.
Look, a lot of people get writers block because they think theyre afraid of failure – or they think they cant write a good paper. You have to get rid of that negativity and start writing. The more you write, the better your paper will be. You can always edit it later – and find a friend to proofread it to give you some suggestions.

So just start writing . . .