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Critical Reading: “Question-Storming!” by Dr. Michael Arnzen

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I’m pleased today to welcome guest columnist Dr. Michael Arnzen. Dr. Arnzen is one of the driving forces behind the Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University, where I had the pleasure of taking several classes from him as well as a few critiquing workshops he’s led, and I’m so honored to be able to pass along some of his wisdom.

by Michael A. Arnzen

Every drop of ink that you see on a page is a choice that a writer has made. That choice has a motive. A reason. A rationale. Thus, critical reading is — at its base — a search for that reason. It simply involves ASKING THE QUESTION WHY.

I always read with a pen in hand, taking notes in the margins of my books. I enjoy defacing them, taking control of them, and treating them like learning tools. This might sound like it robs the pleasure out of reading, but it actually has its own pleasures and rewards. Writers are always reading other writers as “studies in the craft,” and we learn a lot from each other along the way.

For me, “critical reading” typically means bouncing a question off the page of a book and following its trajectory to see where it lands. Sometimes the question takes me back to pages I’d already read, or into other works by a writer. Sometimes it takes me into my own memories and life experiences. Sometimes it sends me to the keyboard to write, or to my pen so I can write in the margins.

But the question is almost inevitably a WHY question. Here are typical examples:

  • WHY did the writer start this scene with dialogue?
  • WHY did the writer call sky “azure” instead of just plain “blue”?
  • WHY is the character named “Spring”? What does an allusion to this season accomplish?
  • WHY did the writer use a one sentence paragraph here?
  • WHY does the villain shoot the character in the chest as opposed to elsewhere?
  • WHY does this character always smoke a cigarette when they step outside?
  • WHY is this book’s title a pun with a double meaning? Are there other meanings to it?
  • WHY do mystery books always focus on WHOdunit, when what matters is often HOW?
  • WHY did I hate the lead character’s love interest so much?
  • WHY is it snowing in this scene? Is the snow symbolic of something?
  • WHY did the book end with a question?

From the mundane and minute to the big picture, I constantly ask “WHY?” — and though you can probably imagine an annoying little kid doing this, too, tugging on the hem of your coat (“Why is the sky blue, Mommy? But why that? And why this?”) — often we learn by exploring POSSIBLE ANSWERS to these questions.

Reading like this becomes habitual if you do it often enough. But if you don’t feel like you’re this sort of “critical reader” you might want to take a moment out of each reading session (say, at the end of a chapter or three of a book) to just do what I call “Question-storming.” It’s sort of like brainstorming, where — with pen in hand — you try to dump all your ideas out onto the page. Only in this case, you’re trying to formulate as many questions as you can. You can think about the answers later. For now, skim what you’ve read and then write down all the WHY? questions you can come up with somewhere, even if its just in the blank space at the top of the first chapter heading. Or you can skim the text and underline key phrases, words, or sentences and then write “WHY?” in the margins.

Take some time later to review the questions and think about the answers. Any of them could lead to journal entries or moments of quiet reflection. Do whatever works for you. Regardless, when we go through this process, we stumble upon new ways of thinking that we might not have encountered otherwise. We engage in a kind of research and discovery mission. And these studies in motive and reasoning in turn shape how we write.

Indeed, readers (especially readers of mysteries) often are silently asking “Why?” in the back of their minds as they read all along, anyway. But it’s in the BACK. When you critically read, you move that question to the front of your mind and allow it to be the most pressing question at issue for you.

When you write, you can play off the reader’s “guessing game” about motives, by predicting what questions they will be asking about your story, and misdirecting them or revealing to them answers that they might not have seen coming. You can play off the most predictable “choices” that writers make, and make your way into new ground by choosing unexpected and alternative paths. Getting into a habit of critical reading is a great way to sharpen your skills at the games readers and writers play on that field of sport we call fiction. By gauging the artistic choices that other writers make, we start to question our own motives…and while this can make you a little paranoid, most writers who do this find they ultimately write with a greater sense of purpose.

Mike ArnzenDr. Michael A. Arnzen ( has taught horror and suspense writing in the Writing Popular Fiction graduate program at Seton Hill University since 1999. His latest projects include a collection of short stories (Proverbs for Monsters) and a spoken word CD (Audiovile). His article on higher education for the horror writer, “Degrees of Dread,” appears in the recent book from Writer’s Digest, On Writing Horror (edited by Mort Castle).

  1. Tuesday, November 20, 2007 12:36 pm

    Thanks for the guest post! Defacing a book makes me cringe, but I can see where there would be a great deal of discovery in the process. Maybe I’m a Post-it girl at heart. I must remember to ask WHY instead of barreling through!


  2. Tuesday, November 20, 2007 2:45 pm

    Yup, still can’t face writing in a book, but this was a very informative post.

    I listened to an interview yesterday with Tom Hanks where he mentioned sitting in a scene with Denzel Washington, where Denzel had all the action and Tom was only an observer. Tom Hanks watched everything Denzel Washington did, hoping to garner better ways of interpreting, acting, and characterization.

    Kinda like critically reading a novel, huh? Learn from the masters how to do your own work better.


  3. heidirubymiller permalink
    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 8:41 am

    What a wonderful series. You always hit upon those things that writers at any stage really need to know.

    Your passion for writing and reading came through beautifully in your essay. Thank you for sharing. I will continue to ask WHY with every word.



  4. Wednesday, November 21, 2007 12:51 pm

    Hi Kaye and Mike,
    Great article.Thank you.


  5. Ron Edison permalink
    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 4:16 pm

    Yeah, I hate defacing books, but don’t some of them deserve it? I’m reading one now that I’d dearly love to write in except that it was inscribed to me by the author two weeks ago. It’s full of amateurish mistakes. No sign of a professional editor or copyeditor. Books like this can be instructional. If you can find flaws in someone else’s work, it’s training for finding them in yours. That’s the value of critique–not so much about tearing down someone else but about building up your own work.



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