Critical reading is the first step to developing your own critical academic writing. Being an effective writer means first being an effective reader and having the ability to decipher academic sources.
Follow these steps to develop a solid prereading and reading strategy (referred to as the SQ3R or SQ4R critical reading model):
Read and Take Notes
First, scan the text for main sections and organization, noting the publication information, date of publication, author associations, and other information that can inform you of the source’s accuracy and relevance. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the author’s words and can identify what the author presents as the most important part of the writing. And, of course, you need to understand the vocabulary the author uses as well as note any biases the author(s) might have (for example, if the research was sponsored by a major corporation or group).
After you have had a chance to scan the text, you will want to write down any questions that you have relating to the content, what to expect, and how you expect the source content to relate to other sources you have already read. For example, do you have questions about the author's purpose? What about how it will relate to your own research or assignment? Do you expect this source to offer support for your argument, to offer a counter argument, or to offer additional information to either side of the argument you are making?
READ AND TAKE NOTES
As you read the text in full, make sure that you identify the main ideas and details that support the author’s main points. Active reading means comprehending and analyzing the text, which means taking notes as you read. Visit our Note Taking page for tips on how to take effective notes. Take your time reading to make sure you understand all components of the source. You might find you need to re-read certain passages for full comprehension. Reading for comprehension takes time, so don't feel pressure to read quickly.
Once you have read the source in full, you now want to answer the questions that you had leading into the reading. Highlight or take notes on the passages of the source that answer the prereading questions, and of course take note of any new questions that might have developed and that you might need to answer with additional reading or research.
Once you hone your prereading and reading skills, you'll have mastered the foundation of reading: understanding. You will then be able to progress to the next stages of critical reading and writing, which include:
These stages involve moving past critical reading to critical thinking, or placing what you have read in context of what you already know and what you still need to discover.
Not all critical reading models include this fourth "R," as relating the source to other texts is a higher order skill required for the advanced writing done when composing research problems and literature reviews. Relating refers to synthesizing the main ideas of the source with the main ideas of the other sources you have read, identifying gaps in the literature, and beginning formulate your own approach to filling that gap.
CRITICAL WRITING STRATEGIES
Once you're confident that you fully comprehend the sources you'll use to write your paper, you will now move into the writing stages:
UNDERSTAND THE ASSIGNMENT
Be sure you have read the assignment instructions in detail and understand fully what is expected of you. Take note of page or word limit expectations, numbers of resources you must incorporate, writing and assignment rubrics your instructor will use to assess your work, and so forth. Don't hesitate to reach out to your instructor if you need additional clarification.
CREATE AN OUTLINE
Remember, before you create an outline, you must have followed the critical reading steps above. To create your outline, first take out the notes that you took while reading, and then:
Narrow your topic to a specific topic sentence and/or thesis statement. This statement should clearly and concisely convey to your reader the paper’s purpose and serve as a basis for the argument you will make.
Create a list of main ideas or themes that you identified in your note-taking process. If you were thorough in your note-taking, this step will likely be very easy. If not, you might need to spend some additional time brainstorming and reviewing your sources. Be critical of the ideas you plan to include. Do they advance your argument? Do they offer a counter-argument? Do they aid in understanding?
Organized the main ideas in your list into a logical order. This means following a logical progression of idea development. Or, more simply, building a clear argument. Decide what you need to say and in what order makes the most sense to say it.
Add in sub-points and specific evidence to the main ideas.
Review and adjust the outline once more to make sure it responds to the assignment guidelines
DRAFT THE PAPER
The most important thing to remember when drafting a paper is that it is OK to have a "crummy first draft." In fact, writing without fear of making mistakes or sounding perfect is really the only way you're going to create continuity and logical presentation of ideas. You need to let your ideas flow out onto the page, and worry about revision, proofreading, and formatting at a later stage. We recommend you:
Turn off MS Word Spelling and Grammar check while you write your first draft
Turn off your internal editor; do not allow yourself to edit as you write (i.e., no deleting words or sentences to rewrite them - just move forward)
Allow space between drafting and revision (i.e., put the manuscript away for a period of time--preferably more than a day--before coming back to begin revising).
REVISE THE PAPER
Good writing happens during revision, not during writing. Sounds strange, right? Even the best writers (think Stephen King) admit that they would never show their first drafts to a critical reader. First drafts should be for our own eyes only; this means you will need to allow yourself enough time to draft, revise, and proof the paper before turning it in. Consider creating a timeline for yourself for each assignment due date, allowing a day for each stage of the writing process. The revision stage is also a GREAT time to submit your paper to the LSH for a consultation!
Many writers also find it helpful to create a check list to follow during the revision process. Some items on your check list might include:
The paper aligns with the outline
The paper responds to all aspects of the assignment guidelines
Logical development of ideas
Logical, clear paragraph structure
Paragraphs have a main idea, evidence, analysis, and transitions, as needed
A clear introduction with a thesis
A clear conclusion that summarizes the main ideas, offers a closing thought, and does not introduce any new information
PROOFREAD THE PAPER
Proofreading the paper should always be your last step, and often it's the hardest step for writers to complete in their own writing. Our eyes can trick us by skimming over simple typos and spelling and grammatical errors. The first step in proofreading should be to turn back "ON" your MS Word Spelling and Grammar checker and/or to utilize a grammar check software, such as Grammarly. Next, consider having a second set of eyes on your paper (a friend, classmate, or family who you trust and who has a keen attention to detail). Proofreading entails checking for: