Study your key sources in order to gain an in-depth understanding of your topic.
At an elementary level, understanding means retaining information: when asked, you can repeat what the author or source said. But an in-depth understanding also includes insights into issues such as
To gain an in-depth understanding of your key sources, use the strategies described below (in no particular order; they work together).
You need to be engaged and attentive while reading. One way to do this is to approach reading as a conversation between you and the author. You are a participant in a dialogue. This requires you to think about and respond to what you read.
According to Adler and Van Doren in their classic How To Read a Book (1972, p. 46), the essence of active reading is asking questions.
Ask questions about the structure of the text: What is the overall, unifying message? What are the parts and how do they fit together? What problem is the author trying to solve?
Ask questions about the content: What are the main propositions and supporting arguments? What solutions are proposed for problems addressed by the author?
Active reading is a learnable skill that improves with practice. As with any valuable skill, patience and persistence pays off.
By varying your reading speed, you can cover material more efficiently and with better comprehension.
Because you have already skimmed the material, you already have a general idea of the structure and content of what you are reading.
You have also narrowed down your topic, so you have a good idea of what you are looking for. It is not necessary to read every source thoroughly from start to finish.
Taking notes helps you to read actively. You will use your notes later when you integrate information from sources with your ideas.
Numerous software programs are available to facilitate note-taking. Evernote (http://evernote.com/ and Scrivener (http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php) are two highly-regarded examples. Scrivener includes a corkboard-and-cards view that emulates note-taking with 3 x 5 cards (a method frequently used in a very early phase of human evolution, before the advent of personal computers). There's also Lino (http://en.linoit.com/) which simulates sticky notes. All three of these programs work on Macs, and PCs, and Evernote and Lino also work on a variety of mobile devices.
Be careful not to inadvertently plagiarize or violate copyright laws. As Booth, Colomb, and Williams point out, this can easily happen if you neglect to put quotation marks around a quote when you write a note (1995, p. 77).
In-depth understanding of key sources as they relate to topic
Notes on key passages (remember to identify where they came from!)
Notes on reactions to key sources
Complete bibliographic notes for sources