Why start a book of writing strategies with a section on reading?
As Ellen Carillo explains in Bad Ideas about Writing (a book about bad ideas that we need to change), the separation between reading and writing needs to change.
If students are not given the opportunity to continue working on their reading throughout their college careers, they may struggle analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating all that surrounds them since comprehension is a crucial step toward these more advanced interpretive practices. Students may lack the ability to read the world around them because they do not have the tools to recognize the values and assumptions that inform the images, advertisements, news stories, political campaigns, and ideas with which they come into contact on a daily basis. By not focusing on reading as an equally creative and active enterprise as writing—very much writing’s counterpart in the creation of meaning—colleges and universities are potentially producing students, or citizens, who think reading is passive. These students might blindly accept whatever comes their way rather than actively engaging ideas, asking questions, and seeking out multiple perspectives.
Although writing is more often thought of as a creative act, reading is just as creative. When one writes, one is creating meaning by putting words and ideas together. When one reads, the same thing is happening. Although someone else has already put the words and ideas together, the reader interacts with those and creates meaning by bringing her perspective, personal experiences, and background to what literary scholar Louise Rosenblatt has called the transaction between the text and reader. This is why a few people might read the same novel but each take something different from it. That personal transaction with the text has affected how each reader creates meaning. When reading and writing are taught alongside each other in the college-level classroom, students can gain practice experiencing and relishing in opportunities to create meaning not just through writing, but through reading everything from print texts to art to websites to national news events, all of which they will continue to engage beyond school. Focusing on active reading approaches, including everything from comprehension strategies to ways of determining something’s inherent values and biases to productive methods of responding, is crucial if students are going to leave postsecondary institutions prepared to be informed, aware, and engaged citizens.
As Carillo suggests, a text is anything that conveys a set of meanings to the person who examines it. You might have thought that texts were limited to written materials, such as books, magazines, newspapers. Those items are indeed texts—but so are movies, paintings, television shows, songs, political cartoons, online materials, advertisements, maps, works of art, even rooms full of people. If we can look at something, explore it, find layers of meaning in it, and draw information and conclusions from it, we’re looking at a text. And while most of advice that follows is specific to written materials, that doesn't mean that you can't extend these concepts to other kinds of texts.
As a college student, much of your time will be spent interacting with texts of all types, shapes, sizes, and delivery methods. And, most of the writing you do in college will be based on your response to a text. That means that good writing begins with good reading. No matter what field you’re going into, you’ll be doing a lot of reading. The more effectively you read, the easier it’ll be, the less time it will take, and the more you’ll enjoy the experience. People who read effectively use a variety of skills and techniques.
How do you become an better reader?
Know the purpose of your reading.
As a student, this is probably the most important question you have: What assignments are associated with this reading? What will your professor expect you to know about this reading? Sometimes the purpose will be obvious. If you don't know the purpose, look for a reason to read within the text itself: what does the text want you to do? Knowing your purpose will help you to select the most relevant of the strategies that follow.
Reflect on your experience of reading a text.
As you read, frequently stop to check in on yourself. Are you understanding the text? Enjoying it? Do you remember what you just read? Are you distracted? Throughout your education, you'll want to be reflective about everything you do as a student. Indeed, much research show that reflection is one of the habits of successful students.
Be willing to read a text more than once.
Really. Any text you are going to write about needs to be read at least two times, and probably three times. Read a text more than once, focusing on different details each time. All of the skills required for effective reading build on the practices of effective reading.Create an optimal setting for reading.
Create a reading environment
As much as you can, pick the best time, place, and conditions that help decrease distraction. Or, adapt to your reading environment when the perfect environment isn't available by chunking your reading. Again, this is part of reflection. Understanding when you are at your best can help you to maximize those situations.
Read every day. And vary the materials you read: a book, a magazine article, an online blog, etc. Try readings things that are a little challenging. In other words, don’t just vary the subject matter–vary the difficulty, too. Stretch!
Research or investigate content you don’t fully understand.
As you read, you might run into ideas, words, or phrases you don’t understand, or the text might refer to people, places, or events you’re unfamiliar with. It’s tempting to skip over those and keep reading, and sometimes that actually works. But keep in mind that when you read something written by a professional writer or academic, they’ve written with such precision that every word carries meaning and contributes to the whole. Therefore, skipping over words or ideas could change the meaning of the text or leave the meaning incomplete. When you’re reading and come to words and ideas you’re unfamiliar with, you may want to stop and take a moment to do a bit of quick research. Google is a great tool for this—plug in the idea or word and see what comes up. Keep on digging until you have an answer, and then, to help retain the information, take a minute to write a note about it.
But, draw a clear line for yourself between research and plagiarism. Many of the texts you will be asked to read in college have been read before, and someone, somewhere has probably put there ideas about a text somewhere online. Please refrain from drawing on the ideas you find on websites like Course Hero, Enotes, and Shmoop. Your professors have not assigned the texts they have BECAUSE the answers are on Shmoop; rather, your professors have chosen these texts because these texts are good texts for teaching you how to develop a process for finding your own answers. Your future employers will not hire you based on your ability to Shmoop, and you cannot put Shmoop down as a skill on your résumé; rather, your future employers will want to know YOUR ideas about the new guidelines for widget optimization. Even if you are never required to analyze a poem in your future career, you will have to analyze something. Analyzing the poem is just practice.
Questions for Reflection
Why is reading a creative act?
Reflect on your experience of reading this text so far. How would you describe the experience? What do you notice about how you read? Did you successfully achive the purpose of this reading?
[Content adapted from The Word on College Reading and Writing (Babin, et al) CC-BY-NC]