Once again the writers of Girl Who Reads are participating in the A to Z Challenge. The main challenge is to blog for 26 days, but since we already publish 6-7 days a week, I challenged myself and the other writers to try a different style and to create better headlines. For those readers joining us from the A to Z Challenge, Girl Who Reads focuses on books, the reading experience, and writing. Even if you aren't much of a reader I hope you find something interesting here.
Like many book bloggers, I don't have an English degree or much of a background in literature. I review books because I love reading and want to share that passion with others. especially when I find a great book. For that reason, I'm always looking for information on ways to write better reviews.
A technique I've recently been reading about is active reading. I picked up the textbook Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing at a recent library sale and in the opening chapter active reading is demonstrated. The short story "The Necklace" by Guy de Paupassant is used as the study text. This is a short story I remember reading in high school.
I've kind of admired people who annotate their text, though I don't do it. Partly it is because I don't like my handwriting, but the larger reason is because I thought that the notes were some deep understanding that they were jotting down. After reading through the notes for The Necklace, I realize that is not always the case.
In active reading, you are using all your sense and taking an active role in your reading. Perhaps it would be best to contrast it with passive reading. Passive reading is what most of us do in our everyday reading. We read the words on the page, maybe not ever one of them. We synthesize enough to understand and enjoy the story. Passive reading is why we often can't remember details, especially those from early on in the story, when we finish the book.
Recalling details, emotions, and thoughts are hallmarks to writing an awesome book review that fully conveys your opinion of the book. Through active reading, you will be able to say more than "It is a great book!" You will be able to back up your claims.
How to actively read:
Active reading is actually quite easy, though it may be a bit more time consuming until it becomes a habit.
If you don't like writing in books, or you are reading digital files, you may want to pick up a notebook. It doesn't have to be anything special. Pick a style and size that is comfortable to you. I like spiral notebooks that are roughly 5"x6" as it fits into by purse, but it still has a good amount of writing space per page. If you read multiple books at a time in different places you might want separate notebooks so you can keep one with each book.
How do you keep up with your reading notes?
Even if you do annotate in the margins, you will still want something with more writing space to record longer thoughts than can fit in the margins. This may be a notebook or index cards or just a notepad.
Now that you have the tools for active reading, start reading! With each paragraph read, record your observations.
"Many observations, particularly at the beginning, are assimilative; that is, they do little more than record details about the action. But as the story progresses, the comments reflect conclusions about the story's meaning. Toward the end, the comments are full rather than minimal; they result not only from first responses, but also from considered thought." pg. 3 Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing (fifth edition).
As I mentioned, I've read "The Necklace" before (albeit more than 20 years ago), but in reading through it with the annotation I noticed details I missed. For example, how manipulative the wife is. Or that the husband, who clearly wants his wife to be happy, was looking forward to a vacation without her.
In my textbook, there are a few guidelines for your note-taking:
- Observations for basic understanding. This is the who, what, where, what, and how of the story. Also, write down unfamiliar words and things you don't understand about the story.
- Notes on first impressions. As reviewers, we are pretty good at this guideline. It is the emotions the story evokes, what you liked or disliked about the story and characters, etc. Try to explain why you think what you do about the story.
- Development of ideas and enlargement of responses. These notes will make your reviews awesome. Dig a little deeper into the story and character motives. Go beyond your first impressions of a character or situation. Also, note literary devices that where used and your thoughts on their effectiveness.
Benefits of active reading
In addition to writing awesome reviews, active reading can also increase your enjoyment of the story by more deeply investing you into it. Just a few of the benefits you might discover when actively reading:
- A greater appreciation of the characters. I love character driven stories and active reading can connect you more to the characters by revealing characteristics, habits, etc that you may not register or remember in passive reading.
- A deeper appreciation for the author's writing. By more closely reading the story you will discover nuances that might otherwise have been missed. It is the subtle foreshadowing or a play on words, if not paying close attention are missed, but add a richness to the text.
- A better appreciation of themes. Themes are not unique to literary fiction.They are present in genre fiction but are often overlooked as we get sucked into the story. Discussing themes is an important component to an awesome review.
Should you always read actively?
When reading for your own pleasure, don't feel like you have to actively read. If the author has done his/her job, you will thoroughly enjoy the story and the "me time".
However, if you are reviewing a book and you want to write the most awesome review, then active reading is the key.
Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.
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