One of my tutors at the University of Chichester used to say (and I paraphrase here) ‘if you’ve got the audacity to write, you should have the humility to read.’ As a fledgling writer I found this advice invaluable, and very early on discovered that my reading informed my writing.
In addition to helping me to formulate my own argument about other texts, careful critical reading helped me to add texture to my own writing. We’re not talking plagiarism here – this is about using other peoples’ writing to jump-start our own imaginations! I like to think of it as priming the pump of my creativity. In the old days, when people had to pump water from a well by hand, they had to pour a pitcher of water down the pump to get it started. Reading has a similar effect on my creativity.
It seems I’m not alone. Some of my favourite books have been directly inspired by other pieces of literature, for example, Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman is a sequel to the Daphne du Maurier classic and has been officially approved by the Du Maurier estate.
The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and reimagines Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. The authenticity of both of these texts leads me to believe that they came about as a result of careful critical reading of their precursors.
To be fair, when I’m deep in the writing process, I rarely read other texts – I don’t want the distraction of another writer’s voice seeping into my consciousness. But when I’m in between projects, or am in the early stages of my research, reading is an invaluable aid to the way I garner and process information. Having said that, when I’m reading other texts/books, I DON’T read them to look for information, but look instead for ways of thinking about the subject matter.
When I’m reading, I have a habit of jotting notes in the margins, but I never compile lists of evidence, facts or examples – I will either lose them, or they will lead me down a trail that I may not want to/need to go down.
As I read, I ask myself what information I can get out of the text. As an aside, this is a helpful skill to adopt when attempting to critique your own writing – how does the text work? How is it argued? How are the facts used and interpreted?
How to Critically Read a Text
This is all very well and good, but when you are new to critical reading, it sounds very complicated. It isn’t. The process can really be broken down into three main points, which are:
DETERMINE the central claims and purpose of the text (its thesis)
BEGIN to make some judgements about context. Who is the text written for? Who is it I dialogue with? In which historical context is it written?
DISTINGUISH the kinds of reasoning a text employs. What concepts are defined and used? Does the text appeal to a theory or theories? Is a specific methodology laid out?
Finally, having come to an understanding of the text you’re reading, think about how you can absorb some of what you’ve learnt into the piece you’re writing or thinking about writing.