Iterative reading of complex documents

Suppose we are doing a research project, and find a patent or a complex article. The document contains text, tables, graphs, names, numbers, formulas… Where do we even start reading? How do we know we understand what needs to be understood? Occasionally it makes sense to read a document more than once or twice, but many times, focusing each time on something different.

First reading: understanding the document structure

The first time we preread a complex document, the focus is on the structure. What parts does the document consist of? What is the purpose of each part? Do we agree to read in the same order as the document is written? What is the optimal reading order?

Second reading: what is the purpose?

The purpose of the document may be hard to grasp. Some of it is in abstract, some in the introduction and in conclusion… We kind of need to scan the whole document to find the clues for three questions:

  1. What was before the document? The status of the industry, the context of the document, the findings of some other important documents we may want to address.
  2. What is the contribution of this document? Is it a new methodology? An invention or discovery? A numerical evaluation? An overview of some status? Something controversial to make us think?
  3. How do the authors prove their point? Typically there are several results. Is the prove mathematical? Was there an experiment or survey with statistical results? Are there figures of authority that back up the ideas?

Understanding the document

We may reread different parts of the document to understand all the relevant information. First, we look at the tables and images, then we read the text, then we review the numerical results. If there are formulas we may want to understand each variable, each lemma and each theorem. Math is a very compressed language, and it makes sense to slow down when dealing with formulas. Legal documents may have very complex formulations, and it make take some time to get used to the language. Chemical or biological description may refer to substances and effects we do not know.

Understanding the context

Quite often we can understand a document only in specific context, and we may need to research the context. In this case, we may read and partially understand more documents – until all pieces of the puzzle fall in their places.

Reproducing the results

Quite often we need to reproduce the results, building a small simulation or trying to solve the same problem and comparing our solution to the solution in the document. This is probably the hardest, most time-consuming and most important part of the process. We could miss some small detail in the text, and we may feel that we understand everything. Once we try to explain the content to someone or reproduce the results, we see that some things simply do not work. Fixing these inconsistencies we discover things we usually miss. So this is the true learning moment.

Final reading

When we understand the context of the document, understand all the methodology and all the numbers, we reread the document again and see how all pieces of the puzzle connect. We celebrate our achievement and summarize for ourselves what we learned.

It is OK to read a complex document more than once. If the document is worth it, spend all the time you need. Research and simulate the parts that are complex. Make sure you understand how all pieces of the puzzle work together.

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3 Replies to “Iterative reading of complex documents”

  1. Thx Lev, for the awesome post! It was one of your absolute bests in my opinion.
    Anyways, I have a question about the “Understanding the document” part:

    A lot of times, especially in biology & chemistry, the images are further explanations of what is discussed in text. Therefore if we haven’t read the text, we can’t really understand those images.

    Then, why do we first look at images and tables, THEN read the text?

    1. For others who’d like to know, here’s Lev’s response(from e-mail):

      “The author’s assumption for most articles is: you should understand the content independently from reading and from images.

      In reality: typically you need BOTH to understand.

      So we review one, augment with the other and repeat. “

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