Tips for Reading Nonfiction

Need help reading the websites, speeches, and articles featured on this site?
Use these core strategies to tackle even the most complex informational texts.

Conduct Web Research

As you know, the Web is full of more information than any one person could ever read — some of it is worthwhile, and some of it is a waste of time. When conducting Web research, rely on search strategies that make good use of your time and that result in reliable information. Here’s how:

  • Formulate research questions. Start with the simplest question you want to answer. For instance: What is it like to live on a space station? Then draft more specific questions that reflect other aspects of the topic that you are curious about, such as How long do people usually stay on space stations? How do they sleep? What do they eat? How many people usually live in a space station at one time? How do they get to and from the space station? It is important to have a good idea of what information you are looking for before you begin.
  • Choose a search strategy. There are many different ways to search for information on the Web. Most people begin by entering terms in a search engine, and that strategy will probably work in most cases. However, there are other strategies to try as well. Check out the list of alternate strategies below to see if there are some ideas you hadn’t thought of.
  • Choose search terms. Using your research questions, list a variety of search terms you might use. Begin searching with terms that are neither too broad nor too narrow. For example, if you are researching about life on a space station, space is too broad of a search term. You will get many results that are not really related to your topic. And spending spare time on a space station will probably answer that specific question, but may leave the more general questions you have about life on a space station unanswered. Space station, or life on a space station might be the best place to start. Then, you can hone in on the more specific research questions as you go.
  • Capture your results. Keep track of any reliable sites you find that have information that answers your research questions. Copy and paste the Web address (URL) into a separate document, make note of the title and author of the content, and write notes in your own words about what you learned. This is an important step to make sure you avoid plagiarism. If you want to capture direct quotations from a website, make sure to put the text in quotes and credit the source.
  • Be persistent. Remember that there is a LOT of information on the Web. Depending on the search terms you choose, the best sources may not be on the first page of search results. Browse through a few pages of results, and explore the promising links. If after a few pages of results, you haven’t found any helpful answers to your questions, try using some different search terms. If you do find a reliable site with helpful information, don’t stop your search there. Look for a few more trustworthy sources so you can get a range of information about your topic. You can always pare down the information you collect at a later time.

Alternate Search Strategies
Directories are collections of websites organized into categories. Unlike a search engine, which returns any results on the Web automatically based on your terms, in a directory, an actual person or organization (such as a library or a university) decides which sites to include in each category.

Academic databases are searchable collections of scholarly information. They are useful for finding articles published in academic journals. Though they often require subscriptions, most libraries subscribe to one or more databases, and provide their members free access.

Government sites often have credible information about the workings of government. Many of these sites also have primary historical material, information from experts, and accurate records and statistics.

There are many medical sites on the Web devoted to health. Make sure to consult only those sites that you know to be reputable.

Primary Sources are especially useful when you are researching historical events.

A wiki is a site developed by a community of users, all of whom have the ability to add or edit content. Wikis provide a vast amount of information, but since anyone can post, you should always verify information by consulting other sources.