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Sound Writing

Subsection 2.2.2 Reading Critically

No matter the type or purpose of a source, the reading you’ll be doing for your university courses will almost always be critical. Reading critically means that you do far more than read the words on a page—you engage with them by thinking about them. As you will read in Chapter 3, academic writing is all about participating in larger scholarly conversations. This participation is largely about making argumentative claims and supporting them with evidence in order to convince an audience of those claims. When you read an academic work, then, you’re also participating in the scholarly conversation around that work. As a result, reading critically requires you to read and evaluate the author’s claims and evidence. While it isn’t your job to treat your sources as if you were a movie or restaurant critic, you should be aware of the places in which the author’s argument is unconvincing, contradictory, or contentious. (Note: Critical reading for some primary sources can be slightly different, but we will address those differences in the “close reading” section that follows.)
List 2.2.1. Ways to Read Critically
You can think critically about the text in a number of ways, including:
the author’s argument(s) and evidence.
key ideas or claims.
the text’s information, message, argument, themes, etc. to previous content you’ve read or learned in class or in your other classes.
looking up
words, phrases, or concepts with which you’re unfamiliar.
asking questions
in the margins or on another piece of paper about what you don’t understand.
raising new questions
that the reading has inspired.
the reading and its content/argument.
listening to your gut
and allowing yourself to develop feelings and opinions about the text—these feelings might turn into great starting points for an argument or a paper.

Helpful Questions 2.2.2. Evaluating Sources.

  • Do the author’s connections between their claims and their evidence make sense?
  • Is their evidence valid for and accepted by the discipline in which they’re writing?
  • Does the author’s argument contradict, support, or deviate from other arguments I’ve read? If so, which argument is more convincing? Why?
  • Are there any points I can argue against? Or any points that support another argument I want to make? In what ways can this source be useful to me?

Close Reading.

Close reading most frequently occurs in literary studies, but you can also use close reading skills for other disciplines, such as history or sociology. Like reading critically and actively, reading closely enables you to engage with the text on a much deeper level than if you simply skimmed or scanned it. Using the critical and active reading skills you’ve developed, you now need to add in an additional component: close analysis. You perform a close analysis of a formal text in the same way you would agonize over the meaning of the word “okay” in a text message from your new romantic interest. In both cases, “close analysis” means that you are reading a relatively small portion of text in extreme detail. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about close readings is that you are not only trying to describe the text. While describing the text may be an important part of your analysis, you need to do just that—analyze! Your analysis extends beyond the literal meaning of the words on the page to the underlying meaning the writer is conveying.
A comic of a phone screen with a text conversation with someone named "New Romantic Interest" with a heart. The message from the new romantic interest reads "Okay..." and the response reads "..."
The text that you have read closely is your evidence. To convince your audience of your argument, you must take careful and detailed notes (i.e., doing careful and detailed active reading). By including all of the necessary analysis and textual examples, you can tell your reader exactly how you’ve interpreted a passage.

Helpful Questions 2.2.3. Reading Closely.

  • What is the author saying? Is the message clear? What does it mean?
  • Do I see any patterns?
  • Is the text in first person? Second? Third?
  • Does anything about the grammar or sentence structure stick out?
  • What literary devices does the author use—e.g., metaphor, simile, hyperbole, imagery, personification, alliteration, allusion, euphony or cacophony, symbolism, irony, etc.? (No matter what you notice, there’s probably a fancy word that describes it: parataxis? anagnorisis? epanalepsis? What the—?!)
  • If the text is a poem, what meter, rhythm, and rhyme scheme is the author using? Even if the text isn’t a poem, are there any phonetic patterns or rhythms?
  • Are there any words I don’t know? (If so, look them up!)
  • Is any type of character or plot development happening in the passage?
  • What is the relationship between content and form in the passage? How do the passage’s formal features inflect the meaning of the passage?