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How Critically Do You Read?

There are tons of different types of readers, no doubt. Examples range from people who only read books that they seek out while browsing in the store or library, to the ones who can't help but snag as many ARCs/new releases as possible and just jump in with both feet, to everything in between and beyond.

There are also many different levels of how critically each individual person will read their chosen books. Do you like just about everything you read? Do you only like most of it? Do you hardly ever enjoy yourself?

The thing I'm curious about today is....can how critically we read these books affect our writing, either negatively or positively?

I often wonder if it's possible to become so caught up in critical discussions and reading methods that you end up shying away from certain elements in your own writing that you otherwise would have dived right into, causing you to seriously hold back. A couple of writer friends mentioned to me the other day that they really feel like they can tell if the author truly enjoyed herself/himself while writing the particular book.

That passion can really add a magical "it factor" touch to any story. But if you're afraid to dive into certain elements because you know in the back of your head that the YA community is currently analyzing it into oblivion, some of that magic could become smothered.

On the other hand, being fully and completely aware of what layers make up a novel, and which types make you weary, frustrated, or annoyed with the author, can help you avoid making the same mistake on your own WIP. You can use the way you read critically to improve yourself, and books naturally sort of become a mass studying session with a story on the side as opposed to the other way around. Avoiding certain pit falls that routinely gain criticism, from certain types of characters to overdone settings or premises, can really give you a sense of relief and confidence to finish whatever you're working on.

I'm sure this varies from person to person, depending on personal life factors or philosophies that will strongly negate how you feel about certain books, as well as your general experience while reading them.

I'd love to see what you guys have to say on this. Do you think in-depth critical reading is valuable? Do you think it holds you back in any way, good or bad? Is it even something you can control at all?
Amy Lukavics

Amy lurks within the forested mountains of Arizona. When she isn't reading or writing creepy stories, she enjoys cooking, crafting, and playing games across many platforms. She is the author of Daughters Unto Devils (Harlequin Teen 2015) and The Women In The Walls (Harlequin Teen 2016).

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  1. I think I'll always be a reader first. I mean, I've been doing it for waaaay longer than I've been writing.

    What I mean by saying that is that it's easier and more enjoyable for me to get caught up in a good plot and characters than it is for me to read slowly and thoughtfully. If I get swept up in the world of the book, I may not read as closely as I should. Maybe that doesn't make me a very good reader. A prolific reader, no doubt, but maybe not a very critical one.

    On the other hand, that's one of the things I look for most in fiction - escapism. I love burying myself in a book's world. Sure, there are layers and subtext and themes and metaphors and all, but those are not necessarily the most important aspects of the book, to me, if I'm reading a page-turner. And I may not think about them until after I finish. But if I'm being honest with myself, I'm not necessarily reading the book for that. I like good storytelling first and foremost, I guess.

    So when I write, I'm writing with a general theme in mind, but I'm focusing on telling a good story. And if my books are someday read by someone other than me and my critique partners, it will mean more to me that people enjoy them and escape into the world of the story, rather than my books being heralded in English classes as great examples of literary skill.

    Side note: I do feel inadequate (who, me???) sometimes about my lack of a formal reading and writing education. I tested out of English classes in college, so I haven't taken a "real" lit class since high school. I have no shiny MFA hanging on my wall. I take writing classes at a local nonprofit, sure, but that's different than being immersed in an MFA program. So, I am often hard on myself as a writer because of my lack of collegiate and postgrad literary education.

    Gah, longest comment ever! And I still don't know if I answered the question. :)

  2. Oh, and yes, I do think in-depth critical reading is valuable, especially if you're writing with a more literary bent. I do think it can go too far, with readers (and teachers!) sometimes searching too hard for hidden meaning. I had an English teacher who would tell us all of the metaphors and symbolism and themes of a book *before* we read it. Even if it was a major spoiler for the story. It took the fun out of reading it for me.

  3. I've tried reading my favorite authors to see what it is about their writing that draws me in, and each time I get sucked into their world and forget what I was looking for.

    I did notice after I started critiquing others, I found it was difficult for me to read for enjoyment, as I wanted to critique the author. Fortunately I've gotten back in the habit of reading for enjoyment (yay!)

    1. Mary, the same thing happened to me after studying drama in college. Going to plays was never as much fun, since I was always critiquing in my head!

  4. I like to read just for the story. Finding deeper meaning along the way is just a side benefit. It's unfortunate how a lot of English teachers put more thought into books and poems than the authors probably did. For a brief, very embarrassing period, I was putting meaningless, stupid "symbols" into my own writing, just to have symbols in there, even though they didn't add anything to the story and now seem really goofy and out of left field. (They're all coming out when I transcribe, edit, and revise that book!) I was way too influenced by my horrid ninth grade English teacher, who was all about allegories and every single thing being a symbol of something.

  5. I used to be really upset when people didn't like my personality. Now I'm only mildly upset. People are either going to like you or not. If they don't like you, and point out things you should change, it doesn't matter what you do. They still won't like you. (Also, dude! Run away! That person is horrible for you!!!)

    I feel the same way now about my writing. I only take critique from people who like my writing in general. People who dislike my genre or style may have a few valid points or suggestion, but it's going to be weighed down with so much negativity to hardly be worth it.

    For example, if someone tells you to cut half of your book, just walk away. No, run. (Unless, deep down, you know it's true.)

  6. I'm not a writer (yet) but when I review I try to look for positive elements in all the books I read. There has only been one book I can think of that I absolutely detested (I finished it anyway!)I think being an author is really hard work and I commend anyone who finishes writing a novel.

  7. I don't think I read too critically. Honestly if I'm captured by the story I can overlook almost anything. For me it's all about characters and story. I think that does drive me to focus on making sure my characters are very well developed and inspire readers to care for them while keeping the story interesting and moving.

  8. Once I have become immersed in a novel, I'm not a terribly critical or perceptive reader. However, I finish 1 out of every 5 books I begin -- and have found it increasingly more difficult to enjoy what I'm reading once I learn more about the craft of writing.

    And I have definitely noticed the effects of critical reading in my own writing. I go out of my way to avoid tropes and elements that the YA community loudly critizes, and while some of those make the story better, I do think it can become much too restricting, self-censoring. It's a delicate balance.

  9. Wonderful responses! Reading for pure enjoyment is what I always aim for, and I usually only read books that I'm SUPER excited about. In general, I don't usually enjoy in-depth critical reading because I'm hyper sensitive to that inner critic when I'm writing my own stuff.

    Totally agree with Emy that it's a delicate balance!

  10. I'm a pretty critical reader. What you said about reading being a study session with reading on the side, that's how I read. Sometimes I even take notes while I'm reading about what's working or not and how I can use what I learn in my own work. I do struggle getting words on paper, knowing how much they suck that first draft, but I love editing so the more times I've gone over a scene, the more I enjoy re-reading it and fixing it. I agree that it's a delicate balance, and that I do fall on the side of too critical and self-censoring, but overall I think my writing is better for it.

  11. I think in many ways I would ditto everything Mandy said in the first comment. I'm very much like her in that I read quickly but not necessarily carefully because I want to know what happens next! If I get swept up in the world and am enamored by the characters, my editor/critique flies out the window and I fly through the pages. HOWEVER, I am always a very critical reader up until the point I'm sucked in. So, for me, the first 20 or 30 pages are make-it-or-break-it. In that way, I guess I read very much like an agent or editor would. If there's not something to make me want to keep reading, I'll put the book down. I've realized lately that life's too short (and I'm too busy) to read books I don't enjoy!

    1. Oh gosh, "I am always a very critical reader up until the point I'm sucked in." That could definitely describe me pretty well! Although sometimes I get sucked in just by reading the back, LOL.

  12. Being a writer I think it's hard to turn off the inner critic, at least for me. And I really think some critiquing strengthens my writing. But if I find myself being too critical then I decide the story obviously isn't sucking me in enough and maybe I should move on to the next book.

  13. I'm really critical of my own writing, and have had to learn to pay a lot more attention to style and plot structure than I used to. I'm constantly trying to improve, so I do read really critically-- seeing what works and what doesn't gives me a lot of ideas to incorporate when I write.

    This means that rereading old favorites always leads to surprises-- sometimes favorable, sometimes unfavorable. I'm more alert to plot holes and awkward language, and less likely to forgive them in published work (after all, if I noticed, and I'm not even published yet...). On the other hand, I'm finding a lot of really delightful new things to enjoy in books I'd almost forgotten about.

    The end result is that my old favorites are changing, and that my new favorites are books I'd never have picked up before, because I'm looking for different things.

  14. I wouldn't say I'm a critical reader but I think I read reaaaalllllly closely. The subtext, the intertextuality, the imagery, symbols etc, I think these things are what make a book a new delight every time you read it. This is largely due to school and being forced to read beyond the story, to pay extra attention to the language and honestly, sometimes I wish I could turn it off and enjoy the story for what it is. Simply entertainment but when I think about how this entertainment is deepened by sifting away at the various meanings and seeing something more than the average reader... Anyway, as for critical reading, I do notice certain things that do not work and will not work unless you are a master at it. For example, lyrical language that's drowning in metaphors, similes etc. From a reader's point of view, I've learned that sustaining a novel in poetic language is not a task you should undertake unless you are one hundred and one percent certain that you are awesome at the above. And even when you are assured of your own abilities, you should be aware that readers just don't like excessive poetic language. Sometimes plain speaking works. A lot.

  15. I am a book reviewer, an English teacher, a YA scholar, and a YA writer. Please understand how rude it is to say that English teachers "put more thought into books and poems than the authors probably did." Not only does it suggest that English teachers are incompetent at what they do, but it also implies that writers are careless dupes who put very little thought and meaning into the works that they so passionately slave over.

    Yes, I am a very critical reader; no, this is not purposeful. If I don't enjoy a book, I know exactly why I don't enjoy it. That's the result of years and years of training. It means I'm often unsatisfied with books that most of my friends have fun to be fun and engaging. But I think it makes me a better writer, too. Reading helps us write better; I think we can all agree on that. But when we say that, I think what we mean is, "reading intelligently" and being able to understand what we just read and how it was executed.


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Item Reviewed: How Critically Do You Read? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Amy Lukavics