University Learning Center

Reading to Write

How do we approach reading? It depends on our goal. For example, in survey classes like American History or Introduction to Philosophy, you might benefit from scanning the first few lines of every paragraph and locating the main points. Reading for pleasure is much different and often the most appealing; in this case, you're reading to learn or locate whatever interests you (language, style, tone, content, etc.) Reading is typically required for writing a paper; a cohesive, preplanned strategy for approaching an assigned text will ultimately fuel your ideas and transform you into a better writer.

Become an active reader

Avoid passivity. When you initially approach a text, have your pencil handy and make notes along the way. Reading an article or chapter straight through without making a single comment in the margins might stall your creative process.

Of course reading something from start to finish without pausing might help you understand the main idea of an argument, but other important details could slip under your radar, like language, sensory imagery, or, if you're writing an argumentative paper, it's important to document an argument's structure as you read-trying to recall its entire arrangement at the end is quite difficult.

In short, if you're a passive reader, you'll probably return to the text several times before fully understanding it. You'll be wasting time when you could be outlining a first draft. It's extremely important to read thoroughly the first time through. This ensures less work later on.

Well, now that you're closing the door on passivity, how do you become active?

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Rid yourself of preconceived traditions

Part of becoming an active reader means abandoning the idea that 'reading' is the first step when it comes to writing a paper. Perhaps throughout high school and since beginning college, you believe approaching a paper has only one formula: read, think, write. Limiting yourself to one formula means you're not exploring the depths of your own creativity.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I challenging the author of this essay/article/novel?
  • How do I really feel about this particular subject or topic?
  • Once I start writing, should I return to the text?
  • Any remaining evidence I missed that could change my outlook?

If you're not asking yourself these questions, chances are, you're a passive reader. Don't be afraid to question the things you feel most certain about. Good writing always comes from both certainty and doubt.

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"Use the force, Luke"

Trust your instincts. Part of being an active reader means focus on your gut reactions as they happen. Maintain a thorough record of how the text makes you feel. Ask yourself the essential question-Why? And when you think you've arrived at an answer, ask yourself-Why? "Why?" is your greatest and most reliable tool for discovering the nuts and bolts in any given text. Why does the author make certain choices? Are the author's personal beliefs evident in the text? What impact do these choices have? What led me to this conclusion?

Best advice to remember: if you read a passage that stops you dead in your tracks and leaves you contemplating its meaning, even for a moment, then something worthwhile is there. Record your reaction. Dissect your reasoning.

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The Writer/ Reader Exchange

When you read an author's work, you begin a relationship with him/her. Authors inform you of their position when writing about a particular topic, and you, the reader, need to form your own. This exchange is critical-you need to communicate with the material.

Approach a book like you would a job interview at a company where the author is the manager. In this book, there are five or six possible positions that the author offers. The questions you need to ask yourself are: 1) What position interests me the most? 2) What things must I pay attention to in order to secure and understand the requirements for this position? 3) How can I contribute to this position?

To accept a job offer (selecting a position or topic) and help expand the company (writing a paper that expands said topic), you'll need training from the manager (the author's work-read, analyze, and interpret). Are there places where the author could improve or expand on a particular idea, and are you compelled to help? Do you concur or disagree with the author's argument and are there any key elements he/she hasn't considered?

Practicing this approach will advance you one step beyond your gut reactions and make you a participant in the text, not just an observer.

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Margins are your friends

It's true! And all you have to do is write in them every once in a while. Securing your journey to becoming a more active reader means staying in touch with your friends, or margins in this case. Even highlighting a passage or underlining a certain phrase (we'll call them acquaintances) is one step closer to a productive friendship with the text. The biggest challenge is selecting your friends; ask yourself which passages of text are most important and why are they worthy of standing out in your eyes.

There's more to margins than a brief note or thought here and there. Ask yourself questions in the margins. If you come across a passage that is unclear (like someone you recently met but you're not sure how you feel about him/her), ask yourself why you feel that way. Identify any contradictions. Challenge the author.

Reading good writing can be intimidating; most unique minds are. Your mission is to discover your role on the page. Don't allow the author get the last word. Remember, you have the pencil and he/she doesn't. They spelled it out for you, but you possess the power to praise or criticize without having it thrown back in your face.

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Think Outside the Box

Identify the context of everything you read. Remember that writers are connected with their culture, history, and events of his/her time period. Psychology, for example, is a subject that has been documented for decades. If you compare Sigmund Freud with Dr. Phil, you'll need to look beyond their claims and try to understand why they formed them in the first place. In Freud's day, pop culture didn't exist. Someone like Dr. Phil thrives in pop culture. This is an example of how two different time periods and societies influence, persuade, and contribute to what writers believe.

If you're uncertain about a work's context, researching the author will certainly help. Randall Library at UNCW is an excellent place to start. Ask your professors if they can recommend or reserve any additional reading materials.

Finally, this is a two way street. If you don't know much about the author's context, you definitely know about your own. Examine an author's work and determine how it factors into your own context. How does Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," hold up in today's society? How would contemporary authors approach its subject matter and dialogue if written today? Absorb the world around you. Be a sponge! Understanding your own context is equally important as understanding the author's.

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Identifying Types of Disciplines

Major academic disciplines (for example, English, History, Sociology, Psychology, and Biology) require you to approach reading differently. You might read certain types of works; for example, Sociology classes examine various reports and statistics, In Psychology you might review sample charts or patient histories, and History classes often assign important, factual documents. Understanding the requirements for each discipline is crucial for a paper's success.

Familiarize yourself with each assignment and its style guidelines (MLA, APA, Chicago).

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Use the above tools to help yourself target a specific assignment and strip it down to its core. Remember reading requires participation; it's a relationship between you and the author. Regardless of topic or discipline, remember that you are a writer and committing yourself to paper means finding your voice and using it.

-- Written by Tom Kunz