Hellooo there, friend!
If you've been hanging around the writersphere for a while now, you've probably heard the phrase "read critically" tossed around a time or two. Or, ya know, twelve.
In fact, it's one of the topics I'm most often asked about in emails and tweets and such, probably because I mention just how important reading (and reading critically) is whenever I get the chance. And I'm not the only one who thinks so...
Check out these quotes from famous authors:
“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.” - Oscar Wilde
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” - Stephen King
“Think before you speak. Read before you think.” - Fran Lebowitz
“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” - Joseph Brodsky
And these are just a few examples!
Reading truly is fundamental to who we are as individuals, as well as to society as a whole. Books are the backbone of culture and learning and entertainment. They challenge and excite us just as much as they keep us educated and informed. Without them, our lives would be vastly different.
And to state the obvious, there would be no books to read if it weren't for the authors who write them!
Just as writers create books, books are integral to the creation of writers.
Think about it: would you be a writer today if you hadn't first fallen in love with reading? Books can make an incredible impact on writers. And this impact? It thrives when you read critically, which is exactly what we're going to talk about today. So let's get started!
What is critical reading anyway?
There are two ways to read a book: you can either consume it or savor it.
"What in the world?" you ask. Stick with me, friend.
When you read, you can either eagerly whip through the pages to find out what happens next...or, you can settle in and really consider the book you're reading, mulling over everything it has to offer. This second option is what we like to call "critical reading".
But what does it mean to read critically? There are actually two definitions we need to discuss. Here's an overview for you:
1. Critical reading is the analyzation of the text being read.
2. Critical reading is the refusal to take a text at face value, but rather to look at it through the lens of one's own perspective.
So not only do you break down what you're reading to discover all of the parts that make it tick (think of all the mechanisms hidden behind a clock face), you also allow your own experiences and worldview to shape the way you view the book.
Ever heard the phrase "read between the lines"?
Reading critically means that you're not just looking at what the author says; you're looking at what they're not saying and interpreting what that means to you.
Now critical reading may sound like a lot of work, and it can be! I won't blame you if start running for the hills because you don't want to waste time and energy on anything but your writing. I hear ya, friend!
But I promise you this: critical reading isn't a waste of time. It doesn't even have to take up a lot of your time. No ten-page essays required here, yo. *wink*
In all seriousness, analyzing what you read can be done in the margins of your life. In the shower. As you fall asleep. On the long drive to work. Taking just ten minutes to really think about the last book you read can truly make a world of difference.
But why read critically? Because it helps you become a better writer!
You naturally pick up writing and storytelling cues as you read, whether you intend to or not. Pretty cool, right?
But just think about how much more you could learn and grow if you actually meant to learn and grow! When you read critically, you make the conscious decision to do all in your power to become a better writer and storyteller.
Now I don't know about you, but that's certainly something I want to do. Sign me up today!
If you're ready to join the party, you're going to need to know how to read critically, right? Well, my friend–you're in luck. We're about to discuss everything you need to know.
First things first, of course. Not all types of fiction are going to be broken down in the same way. In fact, I'd say there are two different types of critical reading:
- Language Analyzation. This is where you break down the words, phrases, sentence structure, and grammar choices used within a piece of writing.
- Storytelling Analyzation. And here you break down the plot, characters, settings, themes, motifs, and other storytelling elements used within a piece of writing.
I recommend considering both as you read critically, as every novelist must be both writer and storyteller if they want to craft a truly spectacular novel.
So let's talk about these two types of critical reading in depth, shall we?
How do you begin reading critically?
Did you know there are two main ways to analyze a text? It's true! Let's break them down:
As I mentioned above, we subconsciously pick up language cues when we read and begin to integrate them into our own writing. And that's great! But it doesn't mean you should avoid looking at language critically, too.
As you read, here are a few things to consider:
1. Vocabulary. Did you come across any words or phrases you don't know? Were there any words that were used in a way you hadn't seen before? Consider this and do a little research if necessary.
If you want to dig deeper, you can also consider why the author chose certain words over others. Did they have a specific feel or project a certain mood? Did they give insight into the culture and society the characters live in?
Personally, I like to keep an open notebook nearby when I read. If I come across a word I don't know, I'll take a quick moment to scribble it down, then look up the definition when I'm done reading. Sometimes I'll even try to purposefully incorporate that word into my manuscript during my next writing session.
Doing this or something similar is a great way to expand your vocabulary with very little effort!
2. Sentence Structure. This is the specific way in which sentences are constructed. I very well could have said, "The way that sentences are specifically constructed is called sentence structure", and it would have had the same meaning, right? But instead I chose to structure my sentence more concisely for a clearer impact.
When you write, you should structure your sentences purposefully. Make sure to mix up sentence lengths and use structure to intentionally string readers along or jolt them to a sudden stop. Right?
As you read, you may come across a sentence that makes a particular impact on you.
Take a moment to reread this sentence and consider why it made that impact. How is it structured? Is it a fragment or a run-on? Did the writer connect two unique ideas with a conjunction to highlight their hidden similarities? What is it that makes this sentence special?
3. Voice. Lastly, you'll want to consider the author's voice...or rather, the voice through which they told the story. Did they write an effective narrator? Did the narrator's perspective shine through in the storytelling? Did the narrator have a clear, strong voice or did the writer fall short? And if so, what went wrong?
Considering these items can help you pick up a few tips and tricks for creating your own unique and engaging narrator, one that will really draw readers in and whisk them along on a fantastic journey.
That's certainly a lot to consider, but you don't have look at all three of these language elements every time you read. Consider them lightly or choose to look at just one element in detail to better understand how it plays out in your own writing.
Bonus Tip: If you're struggling to analyze the language in a novel because of how engaging the story is, try reading a piece of poetry or flash fiction critically instead. These pieces are shorter and easier to digest, but you'll still gain all of the same critical reading benefits.
The second type of critical reading you'll want to consider is storytelling. This type is especially important for novelists because–let's face it–stories are our bread and butter. Even more so than the language we use to create them, right?
So let's break down all of the elements you'll want to consider when analyzing a story:
1. Characters. Characters are everything to a story. It's their goals that drive the plot forward, their motivations that keep readers intrigued, and their personalities and flaws that make them relatable and engaging. Simply put: a story without strong characters just isn't a story at all.
As you read, take a detailed look at the characters involved. Consider the main characters first and ask yourself:
- Did the main characters have strong goals or were things just happening to them?
- Why did the characters do what they did? What drove them into action?
- What about their personalities? Were they well-rounded or were they more like empty shells?
- Did I care about these characters? Did I love to hate them or hate to love them?
- What drove me to form a connection with the characters? Or, what was missing?
- What purposes did these characters serve?
- Could these characters have been better written? How so?
Now, let's consider the secondary characters. Ask yourself:
- Did I have a strong understanding of these characters or were they entirely forgettable?
- Did I feel anything towards them? Was there any sort of connection?
- Did these characters serve any purpose? Why did the author include them in the novel?
- What could have made these characters better?
Taking the time to consider these questions will help you understanding the construction of strong, engaging characters that will stick with your readers for years to come.
2. Plot. Next up, we have the plot–the actual sequence of events that makes up your story. Every plot should be driven by the characters. By their goals and the actions they take to achieve them, and by their reactions to what other characters are doing.
Keeping this in mind as you read critically will help you better understand how to build your own engaging plots. Here are some questions to consider:
- Was the action in this story driven by the characters' goals and desires?
- Did the plot keep me engaged or was it boring at points? How so?
- Did the story start off strong or did it drag for several chapters? If so, what might the author have done differently to make the beginning more engaging?
- Were there distracting side plots or did every story line lead up to the final climax of the novel?
- Did the action flow seamlessly or did events seem silly and contrived?
- Did the characters behave according to their goals, personalities, and flaws or did the author use them to reach an end?
- How could the plot have been stronger?
Consider these and similar questions and you will gain a better understanding of how killer plots are constructed. Hurray!
3. Settings. Settings are more important than you'd think! Although the general "where" might not play too pivotal a role in your novel (hence why many writers create fictional towns or cities), the particular setting chosen for each scene can make a huge difference.
Think about where the individual scenes in the novel were set and consider some of the following questions:
- Did I have a clear understanding of where the scenes took place?
- How did the author use the five senses to build vivid imagery?
- Did the author infodump the setting descriptions or were they worked into the narrative?
- How did the locations help set a mood for the scenes?
- Did the locations serve a purpose or were they just...there?
- How could the author have done a better job of setting their scenes?
Use what you learn from reading critically to do a better job of making your own settings more vivid, powerful, and purposeful.
4. Genre and Theme. And finally, you'll want to consider whether the novel you read did a good job of appealing to the right audience and sending an appropriate message. You can have great characters and a great story, but if they aren't framed to interest the right readers, the book will fall flat.
Here are some questions to consider when reading:
- What type of reader did the author try to appeal to? Did they do a good job?
- Was the content appropriate for the novel's genre and age market?
- Did the book stay true to its genre (or defined multi-genres) or was it all over the place?
- Did the novel have a clear tone (i.e. dark and creepy, comedic, inspiring, etc.)?
- What message was conveyed in the novel? (Consider the hero's flaw and how they overcame it.)
- Was the theme too obvious? Or did it get lost in the shuffle?
Great stories become beloved stories when they're able to appeal to the right audience. Digging into whether a novel stayed true to its genre and did a good job of discussing its theme can help you better understand how to appeal to your own ideal readers.
Whew! That is a ton to think about, right? Of course, you don't have to spend hours mulling over each and every one of these elements. The questions are simply meant to guide you in understanding what goes into the construction of a strong and engaging novel. Cool?
You are definitely welcome to consider these elements lightly or to dig into one at a time to better your own storytelling skills.
Bonus Tip: If you're struggling to analyze or read critically because of a lack of structure, why not write a book review?
Take a few minutes to write down what you loved and hated about the book's characters, plot, settings, genre, and theme, then share the review on a site like Goodreads, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble to help out your fellow writers and readers.
Okay, okay. I know my time is running on me here today (seriously, how did this article get so long?). But before we wrap up today's post, let's talk about one of critical reading's most important concepts:
Stories begin in the writer's mind, but end in the reader's.
What makes this concept so important?
Well, let's consider the definition of critical reading we talked about earlier: "Critical reading is the refusal to take a text at face value, but rather to look at it through the lens of one's own perspective."
Each and every reader is going to have different experiences and world views. That means the way they see a story is going to differ from the way someone else sees that story, which is exactly why you may hate a book that everyone else seems to love, or vice versa.
You may also fall in love with a book for a completely different reason than other readers or interpret it in a different way. And that's totally fine! In fact, that goes to show that you aren't just consuming literature, but tasting and savoring it.
So don't gorge yourself on book after book and expect to become a better writer.
Take the time to really get to know each book intimately and personally. Discover what it means to you. Learn the secrets behind its construction. Glean from it every tip and trick you can to become a better writer each and every time you read.
Sound like a plan, Stan? Fantastic!
I hope you've enjoyed this ridiculously long look at what it means to read critically. If there's anything you take away from this post, let it be this: Be an active reader, not a passive one.
In other words, don't just read. Think!
Take your writing and storytelling skills into your own hands and start reading critically today! I promise you will see your novels improve in no time. Happy reading, friend!