The number one reason students struggle to find the main points in their assigned reading is simple:
You are being tested on your ability to figure out what they are and why they’re important.
Teachers worth their salt won’t give you the answers because to do so violates your ability to learn this skill.
Why is this true?
Because all of human progress relies upon unique and innovative solutions to problems.
And knowing how to find the key points in an article is something that is learned by doing.
Plus, content is not king in this regard.
Instead, context is god.
So you not only need to practice identifying what the key points are.
You need to justify in your own words why those points are so important.
The best part?
I have tips for you that will help you improve your skills in not only finding the main points, but also explaining why those points count.
And I’ll teach you how I as a person with two MAs and a PhD earned my degrees by doing just that: finding, outlining and justifying each key point.
Ready to see A+ written all over your report cards and university transcripts?
Let’s get started!
What Is A Main Point?
A main point has several aspects to it. For starters, we have:
- What the author meant
- What the author actually said
Now, you might think that this is splitting hairs.
But as Stanley Fish put it, “the world is one thing, words another.”
Fish is the author of How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. A huge part of his point is that there’s a difference between what a person actually means and how words can be interpreted in many different ways.
There’s a word for this problem: Polysemy. We face it when “a single word, phrase, or concept has more than one meaning or connotation.”
Because many sentences have this issue, the main idea of a passage almost always requires interpretation in your own words.
And if you want to interpret really well, you need to give evidence to demonstrate why your take on the meaning of the passage is valid.
So we might as well face an uncomfortable truth:
To a certain extent, a main point is what you say it is plus what you can validate through argumentation.
Main Points In The Classroom
The definition I’ve just given applies to all aspects of life, but might not be what a teacher in a classroom is looking for from you.
It may be that you need to give a specific answer. This is why I say that “context is god.” In order to pass a test or get an A+ on a paper, the right answer might not be in your control no matter how much evidence you provide.
I’ve personally suffered situations several times where in multiple choice exams, the wording of the question made it impossible to give the best possible answer.
That’s why I’m glad that I used to follow a few simple steps:
- Read the textbooks thoroughly and answer any section or chapter quizzes
- Talk to my teachers to make sure I knew exactly what they were looking for
- Go through sample exams from previous years
- Attend study groups to discuss possible exam questions in advance
Once in the exam setting, if I could not figure out what answer the person grading the exam considered correct, I took a detour.
I would handwrite on the exam that I could not give an answer in good faith. Then I would write on the back of one of the pages a full explanation of why I thought the question was worded poorly. Finally, I gave the answer in prose that I felt was correct.
Although I cannot advise you to do the same, this strategy saved my skin in several exams. I always passed and did complete most of my degrees with honors, something that would have been impossible if I followed the “rules.”
In my case, my main idea paragraphs (or what I sometimes called “paragrowls”) saved my skin many times.
The Best Way To Identify A Main Point
At the end of the day, the best way to know the main point is to question everything.
- What is the author trying to tell me?
- What are the words the author uses?
- How is the topic introduced and concluded?
- What do any diagrams or illustrations tell me about the main points?
- What references to other research does the author make?
- What do commentators on the author say about the main points made by the author?
- Can I find where in the book or article those commentators drew their conclusions?
By asking and answering questions like these, in combination with the strategies I’ve shared for how I used to pass exams, you should feel confident that you can find the main points much easier now.
What Are Subpoints?
Subpoints are easier to define.
Remember how I said that we need to validate our opinion about what counts as a main point?
Authors of books and articles need to do this too. And subpoints is how they do it.
A subpoint typically involves:
- Giving an example
- Providing evidence in order to substantiate a claim
- Paraphrasing another source
- Quoting a source
- Analyzing a secondary text
- Providing a variation on a key point
- Performing historical or theoretical analysis on a main point
For a quick example of a subpoint, just scroll up.
When I mentioned that I’ve passed all my exams so well that I’ve earned the highest degrees you can get at a university, that was a subpoint. It is providing evidence to support the claim that my strategy is valid.
I could actually make the claim even more valid by providing proof that I have a Ph.d., such as by giving you this link to the alumni page of York University’s graduate program in Humanities.
Are subpoints more important than the main points?
In many ways, yes. They are often the evidence that substantiates the main point. Or they provide the nuances or historical background that help explain what makes the main point important.
How to Find the Key Points in an Article in 3 Steps
Now that we have defined main ideas and subpoints, let’s talk about some powerful ways to find them.
The following steps do not have to be followed in any particular order, though I do suggest always starting with the first one.
Step One: Know Your Goal
As I mentioned, a teacher or examiner may have a definition of what counts as the main point. I’ve given you some strategies for figuring that out.
All you have to do after determining what counts as a main point in your particular context is to read the books with that definition in mind. Searching for information based on a goal is a key part of reading faster, so take a second to write out the specific goal every time you sit down to read.
If you’re completing a doctoral dissertation or writing a book like I often do, the burden is a bit heavier. Your goal is to have a research question before you start reading.
Answering this question, and any sub-questions you may have, is your goal.
Step Two: Keep Detailed & Moveable Notes
Because it’s not always possible to know the main idea of a story or scholarly book I’m reading, I take notes on cards.
I shared a detailed tutorial on how I do this in How to Memorize a Textbook.
As I discuss in that post, there are several benefits to taking notes on cards. The main one is studying faster. Another is how using physical cards helps you constantly reshape your “deck of notes.”
The more you read, the more your idea of what counts as an important point might change, as will the subpoints you notice.
Keep in mind that subpoints don’t always have to come from the same source. As a former university professor myself, I can tell you that one way to make sure you get an A+ on your essays is to cross-reference several articles.
By doing this as much as possible in your writing and when answering exam questions, you’re demonstrating reflective thinking. This impresses your graders and will later impress hiring managers too.
Step Three: Test For Validity
One of the best things you can do is test your assumption that a point is as important as it seems.
You can test the validity of what you’ve decided are the most important details in your reading by:
- Checking introductions and conclusions again for confirmation
- Looking through the index for the terms you’ve selected
- Follow-up reading online and in other books
- Asking your teacher or professor if you’ve understood the reading correctly
- Talking with others to see if they’ve reached similar conclusions
Ultimately, having your test, submitted assignment or the things you write yourself graded or scored by others is the ultimate validation. You need either the feedback of your teacher or comments from the court of public opinion to know if you’ve hit paydirt.
And that’s a very good thing. External validation is a huge part of how we grow.
Yes, it takes some courage and sometimes you might get things wrong. Being willing to admit that and then commit to improving in the future is the best response. And so long as you commit to doing that, you cannot lose.
A Final, Powerful Way To Find Main Points
There’s an ancient technique for finding out what really matters in any given text.
It involves using a Memory Palace.
Basically, you memorize a few details, or entire quotes. Then, you analyze them from within memory.
By doing this, you’re able to consider them in a way that is much deeper than if they are only partially absorbed in your mind.
If you’d like to learn more about this technique, consider going through my Free Memory Improvement Kit:
This approach has helped me many times throughout the years, not only for academic goals, but also personal progress in other areas of life. I’m talking about health, mindfulness and professional matters.
Give it a try, and let me know:
What questions do you still have about identifying the main points in the texts that you’re reading? I love updating posts and answering questions in the comments.
And that’s another strategy you might consider:
Online discussion. It’s a great way to figure out what matters most to yourself and others.