The next and most important step in the process of critique writing is reading very carefully whatever it is you are going to critique. The type of “close reading” that is essential to the process of writing a good critique should not be confused with the sort of casual reading we do when reading the newspaper in the morning over coffee or surfing the Internet (?)or browsing through a magazine.
Close reading is a type of reading where the reader critically engages with the text in order to understand it, question it, evaluate it, and form an opinion about it. This is a method of reading where the reader has to slow down and think along each step of the way. The reader furthers her understanding of the text by writing as she reads and by stopping to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary. Ultimately, once done with a close reading of a text, the reader has begun to form an opinion about the text and is ready to make an evaluation of it.
Close reading is not difficult to do, but it is an academic skill that can be challenging, time-consuming, and even exhausting to those who aren’t used to doing it. Learning to closely read is challenging at first, similar in many ways to the experience many of us have when we first start an exercise program. If you have not previously trained as a runner and are not in good physical condition from some other sort of athletic training, you would find it challenging if not impossible to run five miles. But if you start small, keep training, and learn and practice good habits, chances are that what once was impossible (running five miles) is now within your grasp.
The same is true with close reading: it can be a difficult and frustrating process, but with practice and patience, anyone can become a good close reader.
Here are some basic steps to help you in your close reading:
- Write while you read. This is the most essential part of closely reading.
Writing and reading are closely related activities, and when you write about your reading as you are reading (even in what you are reading), you inevitably understand what you are reading better than you do if you read without writing.
Close reading includes taking notes: writing down the most important points of the text, paraphrasing, summarizing, and so forth. Note taking is also an important part of the process of creating and maintaining an annotated bibliography and as part of the overall process of writing research.
But mostly, what I mean when I suggest you write as you read is much messier and less systematic than note taking. I’m thinking of activities where you write in what you are reading by writing in the margins, underlining key sentences and phrases, starring and circling text, and so forth.
What sort of things should you underline as you read and what sorts of things should you write “in” your reading? Generally speaking, you should underline key sentences and phrases and write comments in the margins that clarify the passage for you, that raise questions, that remind you that a passage contains a particularly important quote or idea, or that points out where you might agree or disagree with the text.
- Explain the main points of the text in your own words. When you put something in your own words, what you are essentially doing is “translating” the text you are critiquing into your own language and your own way of understanding something. This is an especially useful technique when you are closely reading complex and long texts—books or more complicated academic articles that you are having a hard time understanding. You might want to put the main points in your own words on a separate sheet of paper. Using a separate sheet of paper makes it easier to note questions or other points about the text as you read.
As well as helping you better understand a complex text, explaining the main points in your own words can create a sort of outline of the text you are critiquing, which is another way of understanding the text. I’m not suggesting you create what I would call a “formal” outline, complete with Roman numerals and appropriate letters underneath each heading. But if you put down on a separate sheet of paper a few sentences for the main points of the text, you will automatically have an outline of sorts, with each sentence describing the subject of a particular part of the reading.
- Use a dictionary. Chances are, you have had teachers tell you to do this all throughout your schooling. And if you are anything like me, you resisted using a dictionary while you read something for years because it slowed you down, because you couldn’t take a dictionary wherever you wanted to go, and because it just seemed like tedious busy work. But trust me: using a dictionary (even a small, paperback one) can be really useful in close reading because it can help you understand key words and phrases, especially words you can’t get from context.
Sometimes, I look up complex or abstract words (ideology, justice, democracy, etc.) in the dictionary, even if I know what they mean, because dictionary definitions will often expand or even change the way that I understand the term. If it’s a particularly important or puzzling word, I will even go so far as to look it up in different dictionaries. The slight differences in definitions can often help create a more full understanding of a term.
- Form an opinion as you read. The two main goals of a close reading are to fully understand what the text means and to form an opinion about whatever it is you are closely reading. If you follow the steps for close reading I outline here, you will inevitably end up with a more informed opinion about the text that can be a starting point toward writing critically about the text.
Certainly you don’t need to have a completely and neatly formed and complete opinion after you finish closely reading. But if you find yourself completing a close reading but still having no opinion about what it is you are closely reading, or if you have a vague and somewhat weak opinion about what it is you are closely reading (“it’s okay,” “there were some good points,” “I liked his main idea,” and so forth), then you probably have not read closely enough.
- Keep questioning the text. As you go along in your close reading, keep asking questions about the text: what is the point? do I agree or disagree with the text? why? what parts of the text are you confused about? how can you find answers to the questions you have? and how do you see it fitting into your research project? Keep asking these kinds of questions as you read and you will soon understand the text you are critiquing a lot better.
- Following the guidelines I offer here, do a close reading of one of the pieces of research you have found. Be sure to write “in” the text as you read (either in the margins or with post-it notes), explain the main points in your own words, look up key words or words you don’t understand in the dictionary, and closely read toward an opinion. Be sure to bring the work of your close reading to class to share and discuss with your classmates and your teacher.
- If you are working collaboratively with classmates on a research project, you can individually do close readings of a common text and compare your reactions. Once an agreed upon text is selected, each member of the collaborative group should individually closely read the same text. Bring to class in the work of your close reading to compare and discuss each of your group members’ readings.