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Critical Reading: An Introduction

Monday, November 12, 2007

Well, I said I was going to wait until after NaNo to start this new series . . . but NaNo is NoNo for me right now—as in, I have the hugest case of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced, so I had to work on something over the weekend, and guess what? You’re getting the new series a few weeks early.

One of my critique partners asked if I could do a series on how to break apart a novel, or, in other words, read critically, so that we can apply what others are doing to our own writing. This is something I had to learn how to do in grad school. As an English major, it was a natural step for me to apply the critical analysis we learned to do in literature classes to popular fiction. But the next step was figuring out how to use it to improve my own writing.

Why is critical reading something I should do?
How many times have you heard agents/editors on panels at conferences say that the best piece of advice they can give to aspiring writers is “read, read, read”? You think, I do read all the time, and I’m still no closer to being published. Well, that’s because you probably aren’t reading critically. It’s more than just reading a book and saying, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” It’s about probing into the whys and hows. Once you learn to analyze your reactions to what you’re reading, you’ll begin to understand the principles of writing better than you ever have before.

Is critical reading different from critiquing?
Yes. Critiquing is reading with the view in mind of helping another writer make their writing better. Critical reading is reading to figure out the mechanics behind a whole work—not just a few chapters at a time—and to try to see it from a more academic viewpoint. What makes it work? What is it about this particular story/writing that would lead to its being published?

So, all I have to learn are a few steps and I’ll be a critical reader?
It’s not quite that easy. There is no one right way to be a critical reader—but there is a wrong way. The wrong way is to approach it with the attitude that you’re going to rip the story apart and find all of the bad parts and show why it should never have been published and yours should be. Yes, you may end up feeling that way afterward, but don’t start out with a chip on your shoulder. Be positive and open minded—this is an opportunity not only to learn from a published author, but to try to figure out what it is about the book and their writing style that works.

What kind of novel should I choose?
I highly recommend choosing a novel published in the genre in which you write, by a publisher you’re targeting. By choosing your own genre, you’re picking what you’re already most familiar with—you won’t be trying to figure out if the author is sticking to the conventions of what’s expected in a certain genre, you’ll know and be able to judge better whether or not it works. By choosing books published by the house(s) you’re targeting, you’ll start getting a better feel for the kinds of things they’re looking for as you analyze more and more books.

This sounds suspiciously like high school English class.
What you learned in high school when it came to evaluating classic literature will come in quite handy in this exercise. You’re going to want to brush up on literary elements such as theme, symbolism, and rhetorical devices.

A few tips and tricks.
–Go ahead and buy the book. While this can be done with a library book, you’re really going to want to have it to refer to in the future.
–Don’t be afraid to write in the book. As John Keating said in Dead Poets’ Society: “It’s not the Bible; you’re not going to hell for this.” Highlight, underline, write.
–If you get caught up in reading and forget to analyze, that’s great! Do your analysis on a second read-through.
–Be brutally honest. This is for you not for a review you’ll be distributing publicly. If you want to write GAG! over a really cheesy dialogue exchange, do it. Don’t filter or censor your gut reaction to what you’re reading. The whole purpose of critical reading is to have that reaction—and then figure out why.

Supplies to have on-hand.
–Post-it Notes. At least 3×3 or larger, lined are great. If you want to go so far as to color-code your notes, get a few different colors depending on just how OCD/AR you want to be with this project.
–Colored pens/pencils. Again—depending on just how in depth you want to get with color-coding, you can survive with one pen or you may want several different colors. I know Margie Lawson teaches a color-coding method of analyzing writing, so if you’re comfortable with that, go for it.
–Highlighters. Same thing as with colored pens: one or several colors.
–Legal pad or single-subject spiral notebook for writing down information on things like characters or setting, for writing questions, for writing your theories of what direction the story is moving in, writing down words you’re not familiar with, etc.

What kinds of things should I be marking?
I’ll be getting into the specific details to look for, but here are some general suggestions:
–Highlight words/phrases you like, good showing/action, great dynamic verbs, good/unusual word choices, character descriptions you like, setting descriptions you like, well-written passages, good things that stand out to you.
–Use the pen to underline pet-peeve phrases (for me, it was/there were are major culprits), incorrect grammar/poorly written passages, passive language that could easily be fixed with an active verb, overuse of certain words (as, was, -ing verbs, -ly adverbs), telling, backstory, repeating information already revealed/rehashing events, anything that just really bugs you.
–When you react to something—positively or negatively—write your reaction on a Post-it Note and affix it to that page (LOL, great description, stilted/unrealistic dialogue, GAG!).
–If you read something that makes you think of a scenario of how the conflict/story might turn out, write it on a Post-it and stick it to that page, or write it in the notebook.
–If something you read sparks an idea for your own work (without plagarizing what you’re reading), write it down immediately and examine what you’ve learned or what emotional reaction you had to what you’re reading that made you think of it.
–Most importantly, don’t forget reading is supposed to be fun. I’ve decided I’m going to start reading critically again, but only if I read a book for fun in between each novel I analyze. Don’t let critical reading rob you of the joy of losing yourself in a good book.

  1. Austin Field permalink
    Monday, November 12, 2007 2:35 pm

    Hey…Long time, eh? I’m trying to catch up with your other series I missed while I was deployed but I really need this one. It’s very timely.


  2. Monday, November 12, 2007 3:36 pm

    Sounds like a great series! Sometimes I forget to read critically–I go in spurts. I always tell myself I’ll go back and analyze the next time, but then I rarely reread a book. EEK. Guess I have to pay closer attention the first time.


  3. Monday, November 12, 2007 3:48 pm

    Yay! Thank you for this series! I love to re-read books. The post-it notes will help me a lot, because I have a serious PHOBIA about writing in books.

    I am looking forward to learning about macro and micro critical reading.

    And I’m sorry about the writer’s block. Sometimes a deadline can throttle the creativity like nothing else.


  4. Jennifer C. permalink
    Monday, November 12, 2007 6:21 pm

    Hello, Kay, I saw your post on the school boards and wanted to come over and check out your blog. I’m new to the program and I’ve never had to do critical reading before, so I’m really glad you’re doing this series so I can figure out exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my assigned reading each term.

    What year did you finish the WPF program?


  5. Wanda permalink
    Monday, November 12, 2007 8:00 pm

    I just found your sight and really like it so far. Cant’ wait to learn more.

    When you say books from the publishing house we’re targeting, you mean like Random house or Dell? The place where the editor is from?


  6. Monday, November 12, 2007 9:35 pm

    Hi, Wanda! Welcome to WPWT.

    Yes, when I say choose books by the publishing house you’re targeting, what I mean is the publishers to whom you want to submit your writing when you feel you’re ready for them to look at it.


  7. Monday, November 12, 2007 9:39 pm

    Hi, Jennifer!

    It’s always nice to “meet” someone else in SHU’s WPF program.

    I graduated in June 2006. I really hope to get back for alumni weekend next June, and hopefully will be able to meet you there.


  8. Monday, November 12, 2007 9:41 pm

    Austin–HEY! I didn’t see your comment. Welcome back state-side. I’m glad you made it back safe and sound.


  9. Monday, November 12, 2007 9:58 pm

    NaNo was a NoNo for me too this year. I hope your writer block gets unblocked soon. You series sounds great. Hope you’re doing well.


  10. Monday, November 12, 2007 11:10 pm

    Great topic, Kaye! I’ve been sort of missing in action the past few months. Glad to be back and reading your stuff!


  11. Tuesday, November 13, 2007 12:37 am

    Welcome back, Candy! Great to “see” you again.


  12. Carol Collett permalink
    Tuesday, November 13, 2007 7:30 pm

    Hi Kaye,
    Thanks for doing this series. Block must be contagious! I’m NoNoing too. 🙂
    I have no qualms about writing in books, but get lost in books I like, even on the re-read. I have to work on that.
    Great meeting last Saturday too.


  13. Seralynn Lewis permalink
    Saturday, October 15, 2016 8:06 pm

    Kaye…I selected a book to read critically in the genre I am interested in. I didn’t realize book had a prologue and epilogue when I selected it.

    Do I consider the prologue as the first chapter or skip it entirely and start reading critically in chapter 1? I wanted to read through it first (I can’t just read a few pages and sit down and dissect them…I sort of get lost in stories…so I thought I’d read through it the first go around and then go back and dissect it) But I’m stumbling here because of the prologue. UGH! Please help!



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