How Critical Reading Can Improve Your Writing
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“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
When I first read Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, this quote cut me to the bone. I wanted desperately to stake my claim on the title of writer, but I wasn’t doing much to set myself up for success. I wrote here and there and maybe read a book or two, but I felt myself too hindered by all of life’s demands to truly pursue what it took to write a novel.
In truth, I had plenty of time to read, write, and improve my writing skills, but making the time to actively work toward our creative goals is a topic for another day. Today, I want to focus on why it’s so important to read with a critical eye. After all, doing so may just be the key to coming into your own as a writer.
What does it mean to read critically?
When we read fiction, we don’t often think about the mechanics behind the story. We don’t analyze the structure of a novel’s plot or the development of its characters, nor do we often meditate on the effectiveness of the author’s prose. We simply read for our own enjoyment, or for the expansion of our minds.
To read critically, however, is to do everything that most readers do not. It’s to place ourselves in the shoes of a book reviewer or a critic and dive deep into what did or did not make a particular story tick. Where most readers would simply say that a novel’s ending fell flat, a critic would nail down exactly where the author went wrong.
Because of this, there’s incredible power in reading with a critical eye. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it an essential skill for any writer. If we consider a passage to be particularly beautiful, we can analyze the language the author used to bring those words to life. Then, with our newfound knowledge, we can work to actively improve the quality of our own writing. How awesome is that?
But how do we go about reading critically?
Whether or not we’re actively reading with a critical eye, we’re always learning from the stories we consume. The more we read, the more we learn, even subconsciously, about the tenets of good writing and strong storytelling. That’s how a writer knows to build their plot to an epic climax even if they’ve never actively studied story structure.
It stands to reason that if we learn so much about writing simply by reading for our own enjoyment, we can learn even more by actively breaking down the stories we read. But there’s no right or wrong way to go about doing this.
Some writers prefer to analyze every book they read, even going so far as to write lengthy book reviews to publish online. Others would rather draw a line between reading for enjoyment and reading to actively improve their work, instead only picking up a book to read critically when they’re ready to improve in a specific area.
For example, if you’re not sure how to write an effective fight scene, you may wish to pick up some of the more popular books in your genre — say, spy thrillers or science fiction — to take a look at the common factors that make their fight scenes work.
Remember that you can analyze both a book’s storytelling and prose, as well. Understanding the choices an author made to craft such lyrical language can prove just as insightful as thinking critically about the way their chosen motifs deepened the story’s world-building — or any other elements that strike your fancy.
And finally, don’t discredit the power of learning what not to do. Reading some of romance’s best meet-cutes can certainly be instructive, but so can reading some of the most cringe-worthy and clichéd.
My best tips for effective critical reading…
Knowing the power of critical reading is one thing, but making a practice out of analyzing the stories you read can prove a bit more difficult. If you’re unsure of how to get started or feel that your attempts at reading critically have proven ineffective in the past, here are a few tips to help you on your way:
#1: Set aside time for critical reading.
Just as critical reading demands that you actively analyze a story or passage, building a critical reading practice is an intentional choice. You must set aside time for reading if you want to be a writer. It’s the bread and butter of our work. If we don’t read, how can we ever write books worthy of being read?
Chances are that you have more time to read, and read critically, than you’d think. These tips for maximizing your writing time can prove just as helpful in your efforts to make time to read.
#2: Acquaint yourself with the tenets of good storytelling.
Reading critically won’t prove very effective if you’re unsure of what to consider. If you’ve never before done any study of the craft, I’d encourage you to rifle through Well-Storied’s extensive blog archives, beginning with our articles on crafting characters, plots, and a wide variety of story elements.
With a better understanding of the craft, you’ll be amazed at just how well you’re able to analyze exactly what does or does not work in any particular story you read.
#3: Be vulnerable in your work.
There’s little point in critical reading if you’re unwilling to challenge your work. As writers, constructive criticism is essential to our success, including that which comes from ourselves. The more objective we are about the weaknesses in our skills and stories, the easier it will be to improve in those areas.
So the next time you crack open your manuscript, take a look at the areas that could use some revision. You’re as good a writer as you work to be, and that process begins with accepting where your work falls short. If you truly can’t say, I’d encourage you to adopt an open mind and seek feedback from an editor or beta readers.
#4: Know the writer you’d like to be.
There are all sorts of well-written stories in this world, but the techniques used in one may not work so well for your own. That’s why, when it comes to critical reading, it’s better to know exactly the type of work you’d like to produce. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to find yourself in a constant push-and-pull between opposing styles.
#5: Own your unique way of reading critically.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s no right or wrong way to go about reading critically. If one particular approach doesn’t work out, don’t give up on critical reading altogether.
If a novel proves too engaging to analyze as you read, mull over its key elements in retrospect instead or return to a few particularly well-written passages to actively consider what made them so engaging. Take notes as you read or keep the work mental. Read critically throughout your writing process or limit it to breaks between drafts.
Just like any other part of the writing process, there will be critical reading methods that work well for you and ones that don’t. Focus on pursuing any fruitful avenues you explore, and you’ll be well on your way to successful critical reading in no time.
Questions to ask as you read critically…
Looking for additional guidance as you begin reading critically? Here are a few questions you may wish to ask as you analyze a story, as broken down by particular elements of the craft:
Did the protagonist play an active role in the story or did events simply happen to them?
What motivations drove the story’s main characters forward?
Did these characters feel real and believable, or were they more like caricatures of real people?
Did I care about these characters? Why or why not?
What role did each character serve in the story? Did they all serve a purpose?
How did the story’s events challenge its characters? How did the characters develop as a result?
What drove the action in this story? Was there a clear catalyst and momentum?
Which scenes were the most engaging in this story? Which were the least?
Did the author’s opening chapters hook me into the story? Why or why not?
Were the characters’ actions throughout this story believable or did certain situations feel contrived?
Did this story feature any side plots? If so, how did they lend or detract from the story as a whole?
Did this story feature a clear and effective climax or was its momentum ultimately disappointing?
Did I have a clear understanding of where each scene took place?
How did the author use the five senses to build a vivid image of each scene?
Did the author info-dump setting descriptions or were they worked into the narrative?
How did the locations help set a mood for each scene?
Did the locations serve a purpose or were they merely backdrops for the scenes at hand?
#4: Genre, Theme, and other story elements
What type of reader was this story best suited for?
Was the content consistently appropriate for the story’s ideal reader?
Did the novel have a clear and consistent tone?
What themes were discussed throughout this story? Were they handled well?
Was the dialogue in this story believable? Did each character have a distinctive voice?
Was there enough at stake in this story to keep me engaged?
Did this story feature original world-building or did it feel too derivative of other works?
Did the author use point-of-view and tense consistently throughout the story?
How could the author’s style be best described? Was it an effective choice for this story?
Were there any passages that felt long-winded, ill-conceived, or confusing? If so, why?
Did the author rely too heavily on any particular words, phrases, or clichés?
What about the author’s style did or did not engage me as a reader?
Which particular lines or passages caught my eye? Why did I find them so enjoyable or effective?
These are certainly a lot of questions to consider, and I’d like to remind you that you don’t need to mull over all of them for critical reading to prove effective. Make sure to consider the specific areas in which you’d like to improve your work, and focus on considering the questions that apply to that particular area, as well as any questions you devise on your own.
If you feel you need to improve in all or most of these areas, try to pick just one or two to explore at a time. It’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the gap between where you are and where you’d like to be, but the surest way to get there is one step at a time. Take it slow and work with intention, and I have no doubt you’ll see your writing improve in no time.