Reading critically?

Discussion in 'General Writing Discussion' started by mithril, Sep 20, 2011.

  1.  
    mithril

    mithril "Hope is not victory."

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    So after quite a substantial break from all writing related activities and discussions, I am back with a question and a request for opinions and suggestions. I'm an avid reader with a quite good reading speed (I think) and I recently decided that if for whatever reason I can not write during a period of time, I'd at least read.

    Now my problem is that I enjoy reading but don't really know how one reads critically. I've seen many suggestions here in the forums to WRITE and READ. And that reading critically helps you pick up on what works for you what doesn't, better language skills, etc etc.However I don't know how to analyse something I read except in vague terms like the writing is very lyrical.. Or that the descriptions are quite vivid.. Or that this particular chapter isn't holding my interest quite that well... But the why's and the how's etc elude me :( I might get some inklings if I expend some serious effort after the novel's done. But not during the reading phase...

    Is that usual? If not.. how do I train myself to get more out of reading? Also I worry that if I start reading novels with that eye, I'd be taking away some of the enjoyment getting fully immersed in a story brings... Thoughts? Opinions? Suggestions?

    PS - If the topic's been covered previously, sorry for double posting and please do direct me to the appropriate posts...
  2.  
    Anne Lyle

    Anne Lyle Fantastical historian

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    I don't tend to consciously read critically - I read to get some downtime from the brainwork of writing :)

    However if that's what you want to do, what might help is if you keep a notebook to hand whilst you're reading, and whenever you find yourself thinking "this chapter isn't holding my interest" or "this passage is brilliant", just jot down a note of the page number and the problem/awesomeness. Or use mini-PostIts, if you have a physical book.

    Then, when you've finished the book, you can go back and re-read those specific sections to see if you can work out why they had that effect on you.

    As for taking away the enjoyment - I think all writers, as they progress in the craft, find that they become far more aware of the flaws in the books they read, even if that's only on the level of spotting typos, or noticing clunky sentences that you itch to rewrite. I don't think there's any way to avoid it!
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    Boneman

    Boneman Active Member

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    Be careful of trying to read critically on the first pass, or you will lose enjoyment, I fear. Naturally, there's an inherent tendency to either like or dislike (or be indifferent to) what you're reading, but my advice would be: read the first time for enjoyment, and the second for criticality - does mean you might not get much writing done... On the second pass, you will notice things that maybe just were a small 'question mark' as you read it the first time.

    I have started doing editing for others, and I still prefer to read through without being too judgemental first, and then look at the construction of the book. I find that little yellow stickies work well for me, with just a word or two on them, because I can go back to them easily. These stickies can be anything - I read a book once where the hero was knocked unconscious three times in a space of ten days, but woke and recovered instantly each time. I didn't truly see it on the first read, as I was caught up in the story, but on the second read-through, I was looking at dramatic impact, and since the book was very heavy on realism, I understood that it was a (IMHO) poor way of resolving a conflict. He didn't even have a bruise, just got on with the next piece of action...

    But I've stuck stickies at repetitive words, grammar, boredom, disbelief, and so on and so on. It does focus me, and it's very easy to look back through the stickies and see patterns of writing that are good or bad. Certainly helped my criticality.
  4.  
    mithril

    mithril "Hope is not victory."

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    Thanks Anne, Boneman.. The Notebook/sticky idea for noting down the question marks in the 1st pass is great. That way i can keep the serious working out of the why's and how's seperated from just finding out what happens next :)

    Great advice guys..
  5.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Asimov once said, if memory serves, that as his own career began to grow, he found he had the same problem of losing the carefree enjoyment of reading (not that he ceased to enjoy what he read, but he began to see it more and more with the writer's eye rather than just the reader's). I think that's true with most writers who have been at it for a while.

    Reading critically is particularly important if you want to improve your writing; and if you want to do this, part of the program must be to read the best writers as well; not just what entertains you, but what has stood the test of time. One thing you might try is to read aloud; see how the words flow; note the cadences and how they change from expository prose to dialogue, or description, or what-have-you. Go back over things which particularly catch your eye, either positivel or negatively, and try to see why they made that impression.

    Compare the best writers with those which are (or have been) most popular; those who set a trend in some field or other; look at how they develop ideas, how they handle the subtleties of characterization, plot, atmosphere, and so forth. Look for their abilities to suggest rather than baldly state; how ambiguity can actually enhance the power of something, and how it can also dilute it when done improperly.

    And it doesn't hurt to get a book or two on the subject of reading critically and see what various techniques are offered, as well....

    Reading speed... that is a sore subject with me, I'm afraid. As a reader, I had quite a high reading speed (e.g., I could, and did, finish off The Hobbit and LotR together in three days); but as a writer and critical reader, I learned to take a good deal more time, to force myself to take things slowly and consider what it was I was reading... and I'm afraid I've known people who learned to "speed-read" who could never do this, and consequently have lost out on the mass of what good writing has to offer as a result....
  6.  
    slack

    slack within the depths

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    The first read is for enjoyment, the second I read as a writer, I also like reading passages outloud.
  7.  
    AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Active Member

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    I tend not to read critically. I can if I have to (other writers seem to value my input with beta and proof reading), but I don't want to for me it removes the magic of reading, and as a writer I never want to lose the 'magic' part of the story.

    My reading speed is incredibly fast and I find a huge amount of the skills I need as a writer have come by osmosis. I'll have an issue and think ooh so and so did that and it worked really well.
  8.  
    Sapheron

    Sapheron Making no sense.

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    I don't try to read critically. Particularly outstanding paragraphs, phrases, up to whole books, I notice as I go along (usually for the wrong reasons, I find the good ones don't stand out in quite the same way). However, often I'll sit for a minute after a book and think about why I think I did, or did not, enjoy it.

    That's about the limit of things though.
  9.  
    fleamailman

    fleamailman Science fiction fantasy

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    ("...why not write lightly upon that which you read then, just seeing your own thoughts upon it..." suggested the goblin now knowing that most thoughts simply floated vaguely in one's mind until they were exacted to oneself in the slot here, adding "...yes, funny how we think we know until one writes it down and then actually sees what one knew...")
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    psychotick

    psychotick Dangerously confused

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    Hi,

    Like the others, read first for enjoyment. Then having finished the book or what have you, jot down some ideas about what you thought of it - impressions. Did you like the characters? How was the story? Did you think you were there? Etc, etc. Then, when that's digested go back to the work, and start reading it with an eye to what you liked and what you didn't. So if you were able to imagine yourself there, start running through the descriptive passages, and find out what made them seem more real to you.

    Also, find other reviews on the same work, and read what others have written. See if you agree with them or not. Try to work out how they have come to their opinions.

    Again, like the others, I would add that critcally analysing a work may well take away some of the joy of reading it. Its hard to simply enjoy when you're constantly looking for flaws or wondering what works well, and reading should first and foremost be about enjoyment - at least fiction. Having said that, it will make you a better writer.

    Cheers, Greg.
  11.  
    mithril

    mithril "Hope is not victory."

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    Thanks a lot everyone for your inputs. I see that most people recommend 2 readings one for enjoyment (if possible) and jotting down notes, followed by a think, followed by the 2nd reading... Which means the book better be worth reading twice over :)

    Also should there be some appreciable gap between the two readings? Somehow can't see myself reading even the most interesting book twice without some break in between... Maybe alternate books? Book 1, reading 1 -> Book 2, reading 1 + think about Book 1 -> Book 1, reading 2 + think about Book 2 -> Book 2 reading 2...

    That should have a better chance of actually getting anything done? :)
  12.  
    slack

    slack within the depths

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    Reading critically has never spoiled my experience, mainly because I don't look for flaws. I look for moments where the plot turns, where an apt description is revealed to be something of a double entendre, and just to learn how a better writer deals with subjects that also interest me.
  13.  
    fleamailman

    fleamailman Science fiction fantasy

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    ("...how many reads of something changes little in my view..." repeated the goblin, adding "...no, one has to pass it through the focus of one's pen to exact it to oneself, where only then does one know what one knows...", in fact, the goblin was merely hinting that it might be a good idea to do a little review here, an introduction then, which might get feedback too)
  14.  
    Dozmonic

    Dozmonic Member

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    If you want to read critically, with a view to improving your own work, then I'd highly recommend reading for enjoyment first time round too. This adds familiarity with a piece of work and allows you to dip and dive a lot more the second time round. You can focus much better on what aspect you want to look at. Are you looking at the structure of the story, or how plot and subplot are interwoven? Did you want to focus on how the characters were developed and interacted? Did the portrayal of the world/scene/emotion really stand out (for good or bad reasons)?

    You want to look at not only the parts you admire, but also the parts you dislike and work out the WHY for both of them.

    I still have a spreadsheet of where I broke down Gemmell's Shield of Thunder story, because it was told with so many points of view but managed to be coherent. The book's in three sections and each section is told from the POV of different main and minor characters. 27 characters in total tell the story, sharing 92 scenes!

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