Five Reading Strategies That Can Make You A Better Writer

“I know how to read,” you might be thinking. “Why would I need someone to tell me how to do that?” And you’re right—if you couldn’t read at all, you wouldn’t be here. But do you ever find yourself struggling to remember the details of what you read after a few days? Do you find it difficult to explain the important ideas of a reading during class discussion? When you sit down to write summaries, do you come up short? If so, you may want to reconsider the approach you take to reading.

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When you’re reading for class, you’re usually being asked to do “close reading.” No, even though it sounds funny, this doesn’t have anything to do with the proximity of the book to your face. Doing a close reading means spending time with the text, paying attention not only to what’s being said, but also how the language is being used. It means thinking about the relationship between language and meaning.

Even outside of class, it’s good to get in the habit of close reading. This encourages us to pay attention to details, find meaning, and become better at communicating. If we are able to analyze the things that we read, and we’re tuned into what makes good writing, we can write better ourselves.

Here are five tips to get you started:

1. Skim before you dive in. Skimming might seem counter-intuitive to being a better reader. After all, it implies a quick and careless approach. But in the case of close reading, skimming can be a great place to begin. First of all, you’ll want to note how long the piece is, since this will help you with time management. Reading a twelve line poem will definitely take a lot less time than reading a forty-page chapter in a psychology text book, and you’ll need to prepare accordingly.

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Think about what the title of a piece can tell you about what to expect. An article titled “Ten Ways to Be a Better Friend” seems like it will be a list of advice, while “Towards a Perceptive Understanding of Size in Cellular Biology” suggests that the author will attempt to persuade readers to rethink the way we look at the size of cells.

Skimming can also help you to become more familiar with the conventions of certain genres. What do the literature reviews you read all have in common? How are science articles organized into sections? How can you tell the difference between a scholarly journal article and a newspaper article just by looking at them? This way, when you’re writing your own work in that particular genre, you’ll know what’s important to include and how it should likely be formatted.

2. Annotate as you go. Consider this your personalized way of having a “conversation” with the text. Circle words or phrases that you’re unfamiliar with. Then, look them up and write them down in the text in a more simplified way. Mark important sections with asterisks, especially if you know you’ll want to reference them again. Draw question marks where you find that something is confusing. You may want to research it or ask the instructor about it. Think about some other ways that using symbols might be helpful, and create a system that works for you.

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Jot down words and phrases in your margins, too. List any ideas that occur to you, questions or topics that you want to spend time thinking about. Not only will this be helpful for class discussions, but this can be a great starting point for paper writing. Developing a solid research question can guide your information-gathering process, and you can draft a paper by working your way towards answering the question.

3. Summarize. A good way to make sure you’ve gotten the point of the reading is to put it aside and see if you can recap it in your own words. What seems to be the author’s main point? How does she convey this? If you can’t answer these questions, go back to the text and reread.

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Once you feel like you have a thorough understanding of the text, whether it’s a work of literature, a case study, or a scholarly article that you want to use in your paper as supporting evidence, you can use your summarizing skills to help you build a strong paper. You might use summary to provide necessary background information or to briefly explain source information.

Writing a summary of what you know about your research question or topic can also be helpful before you begin drafting your paper. This is a great way to sort through your ideas, and once you know what you want to say (or what you still need to figure out), your argument can begin to take shape.

4. Consider context. Once you’ve completed the reading, put it in perspective. When was it written? Where? Was it responding to a particular cultural event? Look at the text as it is framed through its cultural and historical circumstances. Also, think about your own experiences that you are bringing to the reading. How is your understanding of this text shaped by your previous knowledge and from living in this particular time and place? Consider whether any of these things are worth mentioning in your own writing, or if they just help you to put your reading and ideas in perspective.

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5. Draw conclusions. While observations rely on what we can see, we make inferences by gathering informational clues and using knowledge from our own experiences. We use information that is implied to find meanings that are not stated outright. We make inferences in our everyday lives all the time. For example, if you cook dinner and your family asks for seconds, you can assume that they liked the meal whether or not they directly state this. If they’re pushing the food around on their plates, however, you might infer that the food was less than tasty. It’s the same when we’re looking at a text. For instance, we can consider things like word choice to help us figure out an author’s tone or attitude toward the topic they’re writing about. What are your thoughts and feelings about what you’ve just read? What questions are left unanswered? Once you’ve entered this head space, it’s probably time to start drafting!

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Reading and writing are not mutually exclusive practices. When we read, we are making ourselves aware of rhetorical techniques and possibilities in our own writing. When we write, we consider how readable our text is and who our audience will be. It makes sense, then, that becoming better readers will help us to become better writers, and vice versa.

Lauren is an MFA student in the Creative Writing and Publishing Arts program at UB.

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