Surveying (scanning and skimming) - Being a purposeful reader and note-taker

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Surveying (scanning and skimming)
Being a purposeful reader and note-taker

Surveying something you intend to read, before you read it in detail, serves several purposes:

✵It helps you choose whether the item is actually worth reading.

✵It assists you in creating a mental map of the document in preparation for more detailed reading.

✵If you have not already done so, it helps you decide why you are reading the item, i.e. your purpose.

✵It assists you in devising a strategy for reading the item.

Surveying spans two processes: scanning the writing for specific items and skimming it to gain a general overview.


Scanning involves searching for a specific word, phrase or type of information. Providing you know the structure of what you are reading, you can scan at high speed and perhaps restrict your search to only parts of the document. This approach is useful when you’re trying to find out, for example, ’Does the article make any mention of climate change?’ or ’Smith and Jones (2016) is a key reference for my assignment. Where does this book chapter make mention of this source?’

It is possible to scan an article or book chapter of several thousand words - looking for one or more phrases - in only a very few minutes. You can do so by using your finger, or better still a pen or pencil, as a guide to help direct your eyes as you swiftly scan through the document. This can be done when reading either a paper item or an electronic document onscreen. Alternatively, in an electronic document, you can move the cursor just ahead of the line you’re reading. Using the ’find’ function, of course, is one way of hunting down specific words or phrases in an electronic document.

Scanning can help determine the usefulness of an item in your search for information to apply to a writing task. Even though you might be looking for specific items, you cannot help but take in other information about the document - consciously or subconsciously; features such as the document’s structure, its organisation and emphasis.

However, while scanning is an appropriate method for finding mention of a particular phrase, it is less useful at locating a particular idea if it is framed in more than one way. Even the phrases ’climate change’ and ’global warming’ could be described in other ways - ’regional temperature shift’, ’decadal temperature rise’, and so on - and these other descriptions might be missed in a fast scan of text. ’Action research’ is a particular approach to researching people in organisations, but other phrases could be used to describe it, such as ’participatory research’ and ’self-reflective, collaborative research’. Unless your scanning is carefully set up, it is easy to miss an idea expressed in a variety of ways.

Scanning is one approach to making some sense of a document before choosing to read it further and deciding on how to do so. The other approach, which is even more popular, is skimming.

Let your pen or pencil be your guide

When we first learnt to read, many of us started using a finger to mark out each word. As we became more proficient readers we were encouraged to stop using a finger to guide our reading. However, evidence and practice suggests that using a guide can be beneficial. Using a pen or pencil to guide the movement of our eyes down and across the page as we read has many beneficial effects. These include smoothing our eye movements, so reducing fatigue, and controlling the speed of our reading based on degree of interest and difficulty in reading the material.


Skimming involves gaining a general overview of a document you intend to read. Through skimming you gain a sense of its structure and content. Skimming involves paying particular attention to:

✵contents lists

✵summaries or abstracts



✵headings and subheadings

✵charts, tables, diagrams and other visual elements

✵the key sentence(s) in a paragraph that summarise(s) the paragraph’s theme (often near the beginning or end of the paragraph).

As with scanning, skimming is best done using a pen or pencil moving just ahead of the text you are viewing. Commonly, a book chapter or an article of several thousand words can be skimmed in 5-15 minutes. By doing so you can decide whether the item is appropriate for your task and, if it is, which parts to read and how to go about doing so. If you have not already set yourself a purpose, skimming should enable you to do so. Most importantly, skimming helps you begin to build a construct of the document in your mind. This construct serves to guide your reading and acts as a foundation on which further reading can build. When you now read the document, it is no longer ’unknown territory’.

At the skimming stage, you can begin to mark up the printout or photocopy of a document, or the chapter of a book (providing, of course, the document or book is your own property). You might wish to underline key sentences or phrases. Questions or thoughts might already begin coming to you, and you might wish to note them in the margins of the document - another reason why you should have a pencil or pen to hand.

By the end of skimming, you will have some sense of the structure and content of the material. If you had not already set yourself a purpose for reading the document, by now you should be able to do so. You will probably have decided how much of the document you should read, and in doing so, worked out a strategy for reading it.

Skim and/or scan?

You can choose whether to scan a document, skim it, or do both. In my experience, most people choose to skim and use scanning as a way of helping decide whether they should skim the document.