Why Writers Need Active-Reading

Every quarter, as I’m planning my lessons, I have a hard time figuring out how much reading to include in a writing class. I don’t require much, as I always treasure more writing as opposed to too much reading.

Of course, with that said, I have to put reading into the class, because there is something to be said about writers needing to know how to read.

Reading isn’t just quickly scanning the page; it is understanding what is on the page. Me? I’m a slow reader—always have been. I like to think that I read slowly because I’m digesting the words at a nice, easy pace.

Really, though, it’s because I have always tried to actively read.

Active Reading is simply being mindful while you read, as opposed to mindlessly going through the pages, eventually causing you to look up, asking, “What did I just read?” There are lots of good techniques for it, but these are the ones that I usually stress:

  1. Note-taking: Probably the most fundamental of all steps. When reading something that you really want to understand, it’s always a good choice to take notes either in the margin or in another notebook. The notes can be anything, really. It’s more important that you are taking notes than it is that you take specific types of notes. Definitions, questions, tangential ideas, and key ideas are all great things to underline or circle in the text, using the margins for your own words and explanations.
  2. Summarizing: Based on the current paragraph or chapter, what do you think is going to happen next? What is the author saying? Is it a call to action? Persuading you of some point or perspective? Try to sum up the main idea of each paragraph or chapter with a small phrase (“evidence that pollution is spreading” or “emotional story about a dog pound”). That will help you summarize the entire piece.
  3. Questioning: Are there spots in the text that you don’t understand? Or parts that you think need more evidence or imagery? Why do you think the author wrote these exact words? Why didn’t he or she pick other words? Circle them, highlight them, whatever. Just know that you’re going to go back to them and try to answer them after your first read-through.
  4. Differentiating between meaning and summary: Since you’ve already summed up the parts of the work, now you can think about what each part represents. The part where the author lists evidence supporting recycling could be there because certain people care about evidence. The chapter with the little girl? That was there to show the similarities between the narrator and the girl. Always ask why the chapters are in their layout; the answer approaches meaning.
  5. Restating: Write some of the sections in your own words. How would you relay this information/story to your friends? Your boss? Looking at the different language/words that you use goes a long way to understanding who the author is writing for. If he or she uses a lot of big words, then the language suggests that it was for an educated reader, which might mean that certain liberties are taken with regards to meaning, importance, and values.
  6. Close Reading: This is the fun part. Take a sentence or paragraph, and really break it down into tiny parts, figuring out exactly what is being said word for word. There is a subtle distinction between “to” and “for.” Think about how “for” suggests service from one to another; “to” is merely directional. If those words can be that different, just think about all of the possibilities out there.

In the end, though, reading comprehension is something that improves over time and with lots of practice. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you can differentiate between why certain nouns are used, what their rhetorical purposes are, and how to improve the texts for different audiences.

As always, if I forgot something, or you have some other tips, leave a comment.


2 thoughts on “Why Writers Need Active-Reading

  1. I don’t think you can be an effective writer without spending a lot of time reading. Even when I can’t cite a grammatical rule, I can tell when something does or doesn’t sound right, just because I’ve read it correctly often enough.

    Something else you might like to try is giving out a short story and telling people to play editor with it. Not only do you have to look for grammatical errors, but there are tense changes, confusing sentences, unidentified speakers, bad plot, etc. to catch. I’ve spent so much time editing my book, I can’t read anything without correcting it in my head as I read. It also makes me careful to watch for the same errors in my writing.


  2. I like that idea! And I think that by making it an in-class assignment, with a discussion afterward, some of the students who maybe don’t know the grammatical rules themselves will “feel” the wrong bits, like you said. That sort of thing can be incredibly empowering to students. Thanks for the comment!

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