Introduction

When people talk about graduate school, it is not unusual for them to focus on the challenges of the extensive amount of writing involved in graduate research, and the transition from writing to satisfy finite class requirements to writing for infinite professional requirements. To write in this way is a learned skill, not something bound to being a “native speaker”, and takes years to refine as a skill, and can be refined as a skill, no matter what language background a writer has. Becoming a skilled writer requires becoming more active and conscious of the writing process, identifying why you structured your paper one way and not another, why one word is ideal compared to another, etc. As you become more cognizant of your own choices as a writer, the best way to understand English-language conventions and find inspiration for your own writing is to observe the choices of other writers.

This is critical reading, perhaps in its most simple sense reading deliberately, with the understanding that the author of a text writes by making strategic decisions one line at a time. For example, in reading this chapter, why is the first paragraph the way that it is, to start a chapter about reading with a discussion of writing instead? Writing is not a topic of general interest, but the audience for this chapter is presumably bound to read and learn about writing–an audience which may do so much reading that they take reading for granted, and may not pay attention to a chapter about something “easy”, “passive”, or “automatic”, as reading as often characterized as being. Therefore, the most important thing to persuade an audience concerned with writing that they should read a chapter about reading is to highlight advanced reading as a vital and parallel process to the development of advanced writing skills. This is not coincidence or stream of thought: it is strategic, and for you as a reader, the most important question is “why did the author write in this way?”

There are two critical principles manifest in a well-written text:

  1. As an author, do not tell the readers what you think, but instead, show it. That is, present the evidence so that the intended conclusion is implied rather than simply stated. For example, in this chapter, the first two paragraphs could have been replaced simply with “effective writing depends on effective reading”, but in that case, the text would lazily depend on the readers merely to trust that sentence, without any evidence, example, or exact understanding. Thus, when reading, a critical reader may ask,
    •  “What is the author trying to show in this section?”
    •  “How could it have been written differently, or better?”
    •  “Why did the author choose to write in this way?”
    •  “How would I have written it differently?

     

    Becoming aware of the author as a strategic agent is like becoming aware that the pieces on a chessboard are moving not randomly or aesthetically but rather toward a specific objective. Aware readers can sense this, and learn from it.

  2. The second principle is that the form of writing determines the meaning of writing. This is similar to the first principle, in that writers are deliberate in how they form and arrange a text, but when reading that is applied to how a text is interpreted rather than to how it is composed. That is, when writing, an author should expect that readers will perceive the text not from the author’s perspective, but rather from their own perspective as readers, and readers should expect a skilled author to write in a form that brings about the intended meaning for readers. This does not lead to as many questions as the previous principle, but instead only one important question: “What does the form of the text show about the meaning?” What kind of publication a text appears in, how it is arranged on the page, the sections, whether it is a list or a paragraph, etc., all affect how a text is perceived by readers.

There are two other important principles worth mentioning in this discussion of critical reading.

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