An active and engaged reader makes for a more effective and persuasive writer. But what does it mean to be an active reader?
Becoming a great or active reader is more than just simply breezing through a piece of text. It requires you to develop active, analytical reading strategies, as opposed to passive-receptive reading habits. Passive reading turns you into a simple receiver of what a text has to offer (i.e. raw data). But active reading empowers you to move more effectively, evaluating and interpreting the meaning of what you are reading. It makes you think critically, leading to a deeper understanding of the text.
Dorsey Armstrong Ph.D., English Professor at Purdue University, says there are at least three lives to a text—the pre-critical response, reflection, and the third life which involves reading the text again.
First Life of a Text – The Pre-Critical Response
This is your initial response to a piece of writing or text. It can be simply, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it much.” What is the initial feeling it elicits in you? Is it confusing or difficult to understand? Is it interesting? Did the author successfully grab your attention, or do you find his or her writing awkward? The difference between a reader who is simply interested and one who is deeply engaged can be found in if, or how, they move beyond the pre-critical response to think about how, or why, a particular writing affects them a certain way. Moving beyond this phase of reading will allow you to appreciate writing that you may not even really like. It can help you recognize a writer’s artistic skill. You can appreciate how he or she can make you feel an emotion, even if you don’t find the emotion particularly pleasant. The key to becoming a competent writer is to first become an attentive reader.
Second Life of a Text – Consider and Reflect
If you liked what you have read, this is the time to reflect on why you liked it. If you found it awkward, why is that? Any text can be a story if it is read insightfully. What did you like about it? Was it written in the first person? Perhaps you enjoy that it is written in a way that feels like your seeing into the mind of the author or that she is speaking directly to you. If your reaction was negative, you can still glean something from the text. What is the narrator’s attitude? Does it take you to another place in time? You can come to understand the setting of the story simply from the tone you use. If you can get past the negative impression, you can become an insightful reader who has a better understanding and enjoyment of the written word. If you can recognize the powerful, clever nuance moments in a variety of written text as a reader, you will soon be able to work these into your own writing. Once you start reading text insightfully, you will notice the world around you can be read as a kind of text.
Third Life of a Text – Read It Again
After you have reflected on the writing, read it again, now armed with your pre-critical response and the insights you have garnered from your initial read-through. This third life is when you can apply what you have learned in terms of insightful reading. Remember, almost anything can be read or interpreted insightfully. The practice of better reading will help you become a better writer. Exploring the writer’s craft from one perspective can make you become a better practitioner of that craft, especially if you are reading in the genre you enjoy writing in.
It is helpful to consider the three lives of a text as you contemplate your own writing (be it a short story, a poem, an essay, or a book). Your own writing may have several lives, and you should keep this in mind as you write. There will be a first impression of your writing (its first life). What you hope for is that there will be a second life—that someone will stop and reflect on what it is that you have to say. If the second life happens, it is very likely there will be a third life. Becoming a better reader will help inform your writing. Grant it, you may not have the time to read everything that comes your way so deeply or analytically. However, if you are really trying to hone your skills as a writer, refining your reading skills will be crucial to developing your writing skills.