We don’t often grasp it in school. I was the kid in high school who rushed to class so I could read during passing time, and then I turned into the kid who read during chemistry while looking up every few minutes or so to take notes and go back to my book. (I loved chemistry, so that should tell you how much I loved reading.)
Despite that, assigned reading made me want to pull my hair out. I remember one short story we read – it was a page long, front and back – that we analyzed for a week straight. By the time we had got to the end of the week I think we were all ready to burn it.
Did you know you can analyze the placement of DUST?! Y’all. It has been nine years since I read that story and I can still remember how we analyzed the dust motes.
How do you engage a work of writing well? Reading doesn’t just have to be passive. In fact, it should be a highly active one.
Tip #1 • Read with a pen.
If you’re the type of person who will write in a book, go ahead. If you’re not, grab a journal or separate notebook to keep your notes. If you’re the type of person who wants your notes in the book but not on the page, invest in sticky notes (and maybe stock in Post-It).
Mark anything and everything that interests you: highlight favorite quotes, write down phrases that strike you, ask questions. Notice how the author uses imagery to illustrate a scene for you and pay attention to what semantic techniques they use in their writing.
Questions to ask (related to mechanics): What figurative language do I notice (personification, simile, metaphor (single or extended))? What kind of sentences is the author using (simple, complex, compound) and how do those affect the effect of the story?* How much does the author detail their story and how do they do it?
*For instance, Ernest Hemingway uses tight, short sentences that make me think of soldiers reloading their muskets.
Questions to ask (related to story): What’s set up as the central problem? How is the character approaching this? How the other characters move the story along? How do I see the story’s resolution coming together? How does the resolution strike me and why?
Tip #2 • Read outside your typical genre.
When you read across genres, you can bring something unique to your writing. For instance, when I was steeped in academia, scorched by the task of writing ALL THE PAPERS, I wrote a paper on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Most academics write dryly, but it was my goal to write poetically even as I was engaging in strict and effective analysis.
Had I not read and analyzed so much literary fiction in high school, I might not have been able to do this. But I was able to notice those same elements in Lincoln’s speech, and I actually extracted one of them to turn into an extended metaphor in my own paper. My professor referenced this technique in her comments while grading and it is my most deeply cherished compliment on my writing, academic or otherwise.
Questions to ask: How does this genre differ from my preferred? What commonalities do I find? How can I bring differing elements to my preferred genre?
You can write poetic analysis and bring elements of the fantastic or the grotesque to the realistic. It’s all in studying it well and finding
Tip #3 • Read commentary.
Once you’ve read something and gotten your own take on it, go get someone else’s. This helps you digest what you’ve read and broaden your perspective on it.
Last spring I bought the whole works of Shakespeare, and I started working through the plays alphabetically (because that’s how they’re arranged in this edition). Shakespeare is a lot harder to read when you aren’t discussing it in class every other day, so what I began doing every couple acts was reading the summary on SparkNotes to see how much I had understood.
Now, you should probably find a more reliable source than SparkNotes, but like Wikipedia, it’s a good place to begin your research.
Questions to ask: What are these person’s credentials?† Through what lens are they studying this person?* Where do we differ in our interpretation and why?
†If you’re looking for intense scholarship, you’ll want something published by a university press. But depending on who you’re studying and who’s doing the writing, you could talk to a friend or read a blog post or article on the Internet. Anything that gives you an outside perspective from a person you trust.
*One of the books I read on Lincoln, for instance, was all about his writing. The majority of the book focused on his writing, but it also analyzed how the events of Lincoln’s life and the nation at the time influenced his thought, process, and writing.
I don’t always read like this – and in fact, usually, I don’t. Sometimes the joy of reading is curling up with it under a blanket and something warm to drink, and that’s okay. But reading even occasionally with great attention is a prime way for us to develop our comprehension and writing ability, and those are critical skills to have for ourselves and in the workplace. Writing this post made me consider I should read like this more often!