By Logan Miller
One of the larger impacts on our writing as students is how we go about reading the texts we’re assigned in classes. It is simple to suggest that actually doing our assigned reading is critical; however, effective, careful reading is a bit more involved than that, and it is this reading that is crucial to our writing process. For instance, I have a problem reading while lying down because I risk dozing off when I do. My solution has been to avoid this behavior, but in recognizing and remedying that problem, I have only taken one step in the long process of developing useful reading strategies.
Successful reading strategies can help us understand complicated or confusing writing. They can improve our memory for what we have read. They can even help us with synthesis, or drawing connections across many texts. These strategies can involve how we read, when and how we make annotations, and what questions we ask ourselves as we read.
I find that my own reading strategies revolve around the various questions that occur to me before, after, and while I’m reading. These questions can take almost any shape, but whatever their form, they look at both the surface-level details and the deeper meaning in a text and try to find connections between them. Bear in mind that the following examples are not exhaustive.
Questions to ask before reading
When approaching a new text, it can be useful to consider what we know and do not know about the work, the author who wrote it, and the historical moment in which the text was written. Some of these questions can be answered by doing preliminary research on the work and the author. Sometimes, these questions can be answered by looking at the headnotes or chapter introductions written by the author or editor. Additional questions might probe your professor’s purpose behind assigning the text and whether the text will serve to further your own arguments. The following questions can get you started:
- Who is the author?
- When did they write this text?
- Is this writer responding to another writer or to a particular argument or idea?
- Is there anything significant about the historical moment that might inform your understanding of why this text was written?
- What was the relevance of this text during the time it was written and how does that compare to its relevance now?
- What are your expectations for this text, and what do you expect to take from it?
- Do you think this text reinforces or illustrates a theme or goal from the class?
- Will this text support an argument of yours?
Questions to ask while reading
Questions that occur to you while reading can take many different forms. You can consider the different kinds of appeals—ethical, logical, or emotional—an author makes when presenting their argument and whether these appeals are effective. Think about argument and credibility. Your questions may also address form: think about how specific passages were written in a given way or why the writer relied on particular rhetorical devices. You might also consider why the author’s argument is presented the way it is. Remember that surface-level questions often reflect deeper-meaning decisions.
- Do you find yourself engaging with the text, why or why not?
- What kind of authority does the author possess regarding the topic she is writing on?
- What evidence does the author use and what inferences does she make from them?
- Does the author use specific rhetorical devices that change sentence rhythm, length, or complexity?
- How do these changes affect the argument being presented?
- How is the argument organized and presented, and does this structure support or inhibit the argument?
- Are these different methods of argumentation persuasive, why or why not?
- Does the author rely on any emotional appeals in her argument?
Questions to ask after reading
After you’ve finished reading a text, questions you have might revolve around your reactions to the text. Think about why you did or did not find the argument convincing. You may also consider the history of the text. Think about how others have reacted to this text; consider why reactions differ between now and when the text was first published. Questions may also negotiate what additional information the author has published on this topic. You can also question where you might find related arguments or how this text and others inform your opinion or arguments.
- How did you react to the text, and why did you react this way?
- If this text is arguing or responding to another work, how convincing is it in this task?
- What was the popular reaction to this text upon its publication and how have opinions changed over time?
- What other works have been influenced by this text, and how can you tell?
- What texts influenced this one and where do you see this influence?
- What is the broad message of this text and in what ways did the author make it apparent?
- How does this text reinforce or illustrate a theme or goal from the class?
- Does this text inform or enhance the argument you want to make?
One final note
While the included questions offer a suitable foundation as you begin to think about the texts you read, keep in mind that they are only a preliminary step. When approaching a text, always consider what you don’t know about a text. When reading, what do you see that confuses you? What strikes your fancy? When you turn that final page, consider the impressions you’re left with. Was it good or bad? Why? Remember that any question you ask about a text can help you understand that text better. Beyond imparting greater understanding, asking questions can help you engage in a text that seems too far removed from your life or one that you find uninteresting.
You can also improve your engagement through note taking. Whether you write your questions and your answers in the margins of your text or in a notebook, keeping a record of what you thought about a text is an excellent strategy for making sure you actually ask questions and engaged with a text. Additionally, note taking is useful for improving your retention of the material. Engagement and retention will be crucial as you begin writing about the books you’ve read.
So ask those questions!