by Jessie Szalay
Skimming Is Not Enough
You’ve probably heard teachers say that the best way to learn how to write is to read. I think that’s true. But what does that mean? Reading novels taught me about pacing and maintaining a reader’s interest; reading magazine articles taught me about starting pieces with attention-grabbing anecdotes; reading newspapers taught me about objectivity, tone, and the importance of clarity.
But when teachers say that you can learn a lot about writing by reading, they’re talking about even deeper lessons. By being an engaged, critical, and inquisitive reader, you’ll become a more engaged, critical, and inquisitive writer.
In order to formulate the kind of complex, analytical arguments that college professors want, you need to train your mind to examine, question, analyze and evaluate things you encounter in the world. This is called critical thinking, and it applies to pretty much everything you encounter in life: statements you hear in person, media you consume, events and phenomena you witness … and texts you read. Annotating your readings will help you engage in critical reading and thinking practices.
The English department at Massey University identifies the following core elements of critical reading:
- carefully considering and evaluating the reading
- identifying the reading’s strengths and implications
- identifying the reading’s weaknesses and flaws
- looking at the ‘big picture’ and deciding how the reading fits into the greater academic and/or cultural and historical context
Critical reading is important in college because you will be assigned readings in almost every class you take. You will also be asked, often, to find your own sources, read them, and use them in your papers. But it’s also important because even in our age of memes, TV, and podcasts, we still consume a very large amount of written material almost every day.
Plus, studies have shown that students who read actively and critically will better remember what they read (Mueller). Which means less time re-reading.
So how do you critically read?
Here are some strategies that will help you become an effective critical reader—which will help you become a better writer, and, I believe, a more informed citizen of the world.
Before You Read
I know, you’re busy. You want to dive right into your reading, consume it, and move on. But taking a few minutes to survey the landscape in which the piece you’re reading lives will immensely help your understanding of the text. Plus, you’ll get a sense of what to expect from the text, which can help you estimate the amount of time and effort reading it will take.
Here are some features of a text to pay attention to:
Preview the Text.
Check out the abstract, introduction, table of contents, headnotes, or other prefatory material. I resisted reading book introductions for years, but one day during my sophomore year of college I decided to check one out—and it helped the rest of the reading click into place.
Who’s This Writer, Anyway?
Find out who the author is. Check out their reputation, credentials, and look at the publication they are writing for. Sometimes the reading itself will include a biography or editor’s note. Other times, a Google search will tell you a lot.
Look at the publication date. Do you know what was going on with the topic of the reading then? Placing a text in its historical, cultural, and biographical contexts can lead to better understanding and more insight. A piece about civil rights written in the 1960s has a different context and requires a different interpretation than a text about civil rights written in 2018. Reading the 1960s text with a 2018 perspective can lead to valuable interpretations, but only if they are done purposefully and with the awareness that the ‘60s were different than today.
Consider the Title and Subtitles.
This can tell you a lot about what to expect, and what to look for, in your reading. It’s especially true of scientific and social science studies.
While You Read
Just because you’re probably sitting still while you read doesn’t mean you’re not being active. A good, critical reader will be consistently engaged and alert, noticing, thinking, and questioning as they read.
As you read, don’t just let the words wash over you. Constantly ask yourself questions like:
- Does this make sense?
- Why am I being asked to read this?
- What does this mean?
- Why is the writer drawing that conclusion?
- How might the writer’s life have influenced this position or choice?
- How might the cultural, historical, and societal context have contributed to the writer’s position on this?
These are general engagement and comprehension questions, but you will also have different questions to ask depending on your purpose and goals for reading. Are you reading rhetorically, for instance? If so, the questions you ask will be of a particular kind. You will look specifically for clues to the writer’s identity and goals, the audience, and the purpose, etc. (See our “Reading Rhetorically” text for more.) Are you reading to understand and evaluate an argument? Then you might want to pay particular attention to when, where, how, and why the writer tries to root arguments in particular values or perspectives. The questions we ask are ideally those that can lead us (directly and indirectly) to our goals for reading.
Write down your questions, and your answers, if you have them. This gets to my next point . . .
Mark It Up.
Get out a pen or pencil and start scrawling on the text. Whether it’s a print-out or a book, it’s okay to write on it (unless it’s from the library. This is why your professors will ask you to buy books or print out readings). Underline things. Draw symbols and make up your own key to them. Here is one writer’s symbol system. Mine looks different and includes lots of ☺ ☹, *, <3, etc. Margins are your friend!
The reader’s notes and doodles written in the margins and front and back pages of a book are called marginalia. As marginalia-lover Sam Anderson says, noting your observations, questions, disagreements, and agreements in the margins of the text is a way of engaging in a conversation with the author. If you’re lucky enough to be reading a used and marked-up book, you’re also engaging in a conversation with previous readers.
As Mortimer J. Adler writes in his seminal essay “How to Mark A Book,” writing in your book keeps you awake, truly awake. Marginalia also acts as notes for review later, when you’re prepping for a test or to write a paper.
Some things that you might want to write about in the margins of your readings:
- Your emotional responses. If I loved a passage, I don’t just make a heart. I write a little note about what I loved about it. Same thing if I hated it.
- Explications, illustrations, or elaborations on the text’s theme.
- The text’s thesis, evidence, and arguments and your evaluations of them.
- Symbolism and figurative language.
- Questions you have. Something doesn’t make sense? Is one element of an argument left unconsidered? Not sure what the main point of a paragraph is? Not sure what a certain point has to do with the rest of the text? Unsure of what you’re supposed to get out of a passage? Write it down! This can help you come back it later.
- Challenges or affirmations of your beliefs.
- Patterns and repetitions. These might be recurring words, phrases, images, types of examples, types of evidence, or consistent ways of characterizing an issue or person. Ask yourself why the writer chose to repeat these things.
- Uses of logos, pathos, and ethos.
- Background or contextual information.
- Audience appeals.
As you can probably guess, to effectively mark up a text, it can be helpful to …
Take your time. Pause and go over a sentence or paragraph again if you don’t understand it, or just to make sure you do. Look up words you don’t know. Take a second and ask yourself the questions mentioned above. As with many tasks, doing reading well requires slower, intense concentration rather than speedy, superficial attention.
If you’re unsure of what you read, try summarizing it on a separate piece of paper. This forces you to take apart the information and arguments of the text, examine it, and put it back together in your own words. You can’t do that well until you understand the text.
Keep an Open Mind.
Let’s say you got married at age 18 and are super happy—great for you! If you’re reading a scientific study showing that marriages among young people are more likely to end in divorce, resist resistance. Your perspective on this topic is valuable, but as you read, especially during your first reading, it is not your responsibility to rewrite the text. Rather, give the writer a fair chance to develop his or her ideas and read what is on the page, rather than what you wish was there.
Compare and Contrast Readings in This Class, Others, and Life.
Ask yourself why you’re reading this text now, at this point in the semester. What relationship—implicit or explicit—does it have with the other texts in the class? To the course goals? To your assignments?
Ask yourself if the reading changes the way you think about an issue you’ve heard about in your life. Why and how?
Ask yourself if there is a relationship to this reading and readings you’ve done in your other classes. One of the magical things about college is that your classes will sometimes speak to each other across campuses and semesters. The text you read for history class might help you see the text you read for economics in a totally new light. When that happens, you know you’ve learned something.
As you can see, critical reading is work. But it’s fundamental, and, if done right, very fulfilling work that will help you engage with texts both in college and for the rest of your life.
“Critical Reading.” OWLL, Massey University, 23 Aug. 2016, owll.massey.ac.nz/study-skills/critical-reading.php.
Gilroy, Susan. “Interrogating Texts: Thinking Intensive Writing.” HarvardLibrary, Harvard University, 5 Sept. 2017, guides.library.harvard.edu/sixreadinghabits.
Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard.”Psychological Science, Association for Psychological Science, 23 Apr. 2014, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614524581.