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Critical Reading

Mapping the Territory

Reading is an activity integral to the writing process. You may not associate reading with the difficult task of writing a college essay. After all, it seems like a passive activity, something you might do at a café or sitting in an easy chair. But while you can read solely for entertainment, soaking in the plot of a good novel or familiarizing yourself with the latest celebrity gossip, reading also drives the act of writing itself, from the earliest stages onward. Reading can—and will—make you a better writer.

As a reader, a developing writer, and an informed student and citizen, it is extremely important for you to be able to locate, understand, and critically analyze others’ purposes in communicating information. Being able to identify and articulate the meaning of other writers’ arguments and theses enables you to engage in intelligent, meaningful, and critical knowledge exchanges. Ultimately, regardless of the discipline you choose to participate in, textual analysis—the summary, contextualization, and interpretation of a writer’s effective or ineffective delivery of his or her perspective on a topic, statement of thesis, and development of an argument—will be an invaluable skill.

As you learn in “Critical Reading Practices,” an effective argument contains a thesis, supporting claims, and evidence to support those claims. The thesis is the writer’s central argument, or claim, and the supporting claims reinforce the validity of the thesis. When reading another writer’s argument, it is important to be able to distinguish between main points and sub-claims; being able to recognize the difference between the two will prove incredibly useful when composing your own thesis-driven essays.

Practice critical reading strategies as you critique potential resources: evaluate sources' accuracy, authority, context, timeliness, relevance, coverage, and genre.

Clearly, the Internet has revolutionized writing and reading, providing billions of documents at just a click away. As a result, the ability to assess the validity of documents is more important now than ever before.

Things aren't always what they may seem to be. For instance, recently, a number of Americans were surprised to discover that a popular online film critic didn't really exist.

An important part of research writing (and many other kinds of writing) is identifying when sources are “speaking” to each other. When researching a particular topic, you will likely collect many sources that seem to discuss the same thing. Sometimes the authors of these sources will explicitly know about each other and reference one another in their own texts. This is common in academic writing, where explicit conversations between different scholars are expected and valued.

Use a double-entry format to extend your thinking on a topic or to critique an author's presentation.

One very effective technique for avoiding note-bound prose is to respond to powerful quotations in what writing theorist Ann Berthoff calls the double-entry notebook form. The double-entry form shows the direct quotation on the left side of the page and your response to it on the right. There are two advantages to this technique: First, it helps you think about your subject; second, it helps you step away from your sources and discover your own approach and voice.

As you progress throughout college and into your professional life, it’s going to become increasingly important to remember what you read. You might say, “Well, it was important for me to remember what I read in high school, because I was tested on the material and even had pop quizzes.” But that’s a different type of reading—you were reading to take a test or quiz, so you remembered the material temporarily. Do you still remember things you read in high school? How can you change the way you read now, in college, so that going forth you will be able to retain the things you learn from others’ writings? By annotating the margins of what you read, you can become a more active reader.