Tuesday, May 27

5 Steps To Reading Critically

5 Steps To Reading Critically

The web is replete with admonitions for writers to read. They range from Stephen King's terse 

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." 

to W.P. Kinsella's kindly:

"Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write."

I agree! But quotations like these leave an important question unanswered: How? How should we take others' prose apart so we may be enlightened? Are there techniques? Hints? Pointers?

The other day I found an article by Lee Goldberg on how to read critically. Mr Goldberg didn't set out to write about how to read critically (at least, I don't think he did), he was talking about adapting Nero Wolfe's books to the small screen. But, in so doing, he read Wolfe's stories critically and described his process. 

Before we get into that, what does all this talk of reading critically amount to? What are our goals?

What do we mean by reading critically?

"Reading critically" is a phrase that's used quite a bit, but what is it to read a story critically?

Here's how I think of it: reading critically is to read a story in such a way that one acquires an understanding of its underlying structure and how that structure gives meaning to the story as a whole.

As W.P. Kinsella wrote, it's all about taking stories apart to see what makes them wonderful and then using those techniques in one's own tales.

Lee Goldberg on reading critically

By the way, I'm not saying that Lee Goldberg would agree with any of the following five steps. I'm just saying this is what I took from what he wrote.

Step 1: Read the book from cover to cover. Read it for pleasure, read it for a sense of the story.

Step 2: Read the story again and, as you do, answer the following:

a) What are the key emotional points of the story?
b) What are the major plot points?
c) What are the essential clues?
d) What is the central conflict between the main characters?

Step 3: Highlight dialogue that is essential to communicating the important story points.

Step 4: Using the notes you've taken so far, create an outline of the story. What are the scenes? The sequels? The arcs/sequences?

Step 5: If you were going to write this story, what changes would you make? Is there a more effective way to communicate the main story points?

Right now I'm thoroughly enjoying Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins, a continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. On audiobook, I'm listening to Stephen King's Needful Things. 

What are you reading or listening to at the moment?


1. "Writing Nero Wolfe," by Lee Goldberg

Photo credit: "tunnel at place des vosges" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Great post, Karen! Thanks for reading a common one-liner like a writer. James Scott Bell advises exactly what you've suggested here about outlining in Plot & Structure.

    Currently reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He turns a phrase beautifully but I'm amazed by how much the content (so far) reminds me of an autobio zine.

    1. Thanks Krauss. That's high praise! I once had a blue pencil session with James Bell at a conference. Nice guy, and he knows his stuff.

      That's an interesting comment about Kerouac, I hope you write about it sometime. I've played around with the idea that perhaps certain kinds of stories are easier to write without plotting, but Stephen King is the spanner in the works. (Though I haven't completely given up on my 'he made a deal with the devil' theory. ;)

  2. For me, there is a serious downside to critical reading. I can't turn it off!

    I am a staunch defender of the Oxford comma. If a writer omits the Oxford comma, it can ruin the book for me.

    Alright is alwrong. Throw that word in and I throw your book out.

    It took me time to learn to control POV, and I still struggle with it. Thus, I am sensitive to POV. Get slippery with POV and I will condemn your work. In my head if nowhere else.

    Use of 'very' or 'then' or 'suddenly' or any adverb breaks my reading trance and shifts me to editing mode.

    Contrariwise, (said Tweedledee), if I find the sample at Amazon well-written, I buy the book even if the genre is not one I usually read. With the expectation that my little editor shall sleep through this book and leave me the reader in peace.

    1. I'm getting like that. Not just with reading, but with TV, movies, etc. On the bright side, I've found it makes me appreciate well done books/movies all the more.

  3. Good advice for any aspiring writer. Thanks for the post, Karen. And to add a side note to antares comment above, as I've become a better writer, I've also become a more critical reader.

    The Oxford comma is a matter of style and can be obtrusive at times, and necessary at others, BUT, shift point of view mid-scene, or even mid-paragraph (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), or load the page with adverbs and misused words, and I'm done.

    Thus, another way to read critically: If you find something you don't like about an author's style, something that annoys you or bumps you out of the story, be sure to leave it out of your own work.

    1. Richard, thank you for your kind words, and for your advice.

      The Oxford comma is a vexing subject. Sometimes if it is omitted the meaning of the text is unclear while other times the text seems cleaner without it. Ideally (I feel that Antares is about to cringe, and for that I apologize) one could use it in the former cases and omit it in the latter. But I guess many would see that as a worse sin.

      Agreed! One of the benefits of reading absolutely everything, even stories which aren't to one's taste, helps one become aware of what exactly one's taste is. I'm helping to judge a writing contest at the moment and have realized, anew, just how much certain grammatical twitches bother me.


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.