Do you want to understand a complex topic to the degree that beats the average human? There are a couple of ways to go about it: reading, doing, and working with a mentor. Reading is cheaper, and this post is for creatives — writers, musicians, programmers, etc. — who want to learn how to read critically.
How Do You Read And Write Critically?
First, you need time, preferably, alone time. The next question is, how much time do you need?
Some years back, while I was still a ghostwriter, someone hired me to write the sequel of their book. But first, I have to read the first book in the series within three days. So, I did what was wise for me. I asked Google how long it would take to read a story of 50k words.
Guess what. 3 hours. That’s how long it would take.
It opens me to the idea that we have so much time to read. It kicks me in the gut the most familiar excuses people give for not reading enough. This fact can help you to read critically.
Most of us have 6 – 12 hours a week we can dedicate to reading. Some of us have more than that.
Today, I watched a movie someone recommended. It took 1 hour and 30 minutes. I have spent close to that on Twitter today, too. That’s a total of 3 hours already in one day. I could use a third of that to read and get better at something. The point is, you do have time. You’re just using it for something else.
“I don’t have time for this” is not only an excuse for those who don’t read. It’s an excuse for those who will ditch a book before it begins to make sense.
Sadly, we are in an age where everything we read must be interesting in the first chapter, the first page, and the first line, or we won’t bother.
You can find out if the book is worth it. Thirty minutes should do. You could read up to 10 – 20 pages in thirty minutes, depending on how fast you can read. That’s enough time to determine if you want to continue or not.
So What Is Critical Reading?
Critical reading is the process of reading in a way that you connect with the author’s mind. You are not just reading to extract information quickly. You are reading to comprehend on a much deeper level.
Why Do You Need A Critical Reading?
Only a few people will ask you if you have critical reading skills. But they will ask or probably test you if you have critical thinking skills. The good news is that you will improve the latter if you develop the former.
Some people handle or talk about their duty or work differently. Sometimes, it’s because they love it and have spent years honing their thoughts about that job.
Although it’s hard to understand if you are not interested in the thing, you can start by reading better. (It’s not the same as reading more.)
However, there is another topic to discuss if you want to learn how to read critically.
The Purpose Of Reading
If I search for a thing on the internet, such as “what is the name of the first black woman to host a famous tv show?” I want an answer real quick. This is great. It prepares my mind to find a solution as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, many people come to books with this mindset. They want to find an idea on the surface of the water, forgetting that critical reading involves going underwater and having some patience to move around, stay on the ground and study the treasure that hides under the water.
The Intent Of Readers Has Changed Over The Years
If you don’t meet people’s intent or interest fast enough, they won’t continue. This applies to all forms of content from movies to music, and it’s not limited to reading. This is the internet age. There’s just so much to read that it seems like a waste of time if something isn’t interesting as fast as possible.
You can’t (shouldn’t) pick every book with this mindset. You won’t get most of the books if you do that.
So, we have talked about some of the underlying problems. It’s time to see the solution.
How to read critically
Prepare your mind
The purpose of reading is as crucial to getting the message the writer is passing across. The purpose of reading is to make you better at critical thinking, writing, and overall communication. You will become a better leader, creator, founder, or even richer when you get better at those. So, prepare your mind in two ways… On the surface, ask yourself what the purpose of the write-up on the page is. On the bigger picture, why should you care?
A student reading a lesson on “atom” can see it as pointless, but if you want to prepare your mind, you will see the small and big picture. Small picture: you will understand atoms and score better on your class test. Big picture: that knowledge of atoms (plus other topics, of course) might equip you with the skill to design a city entirely supported by solar energy. Who knows?
Schedule 20 Minutes
It’s easy to schedule a short in our busy world of social media, Netflix, and blog posts designed that want us to click and click and click.
All you need at this moment is 20 minutes. That’s less than the time you spend preparing a cup of coffee or the time you spend on the bus or Uber. I am telling you, it’s enough time for a first read.
Read The Thing
It’s simple. Spend 20 minutes reading the material and see what comes out to you. If you do that three times a day, you will read for an hour a day.
I am not saying that reading that number of hours is essential in how to read critically. I am saying that you do have time to read if it seems like you don’t.
Reflect On It
I am into fiction writing. When I read fiction books that make me feel something, I pause and think about it for a second. I am a human and fiction writer. When someone I have met or seen writes something that makes me feel something, they have a kind of superpower. As a writer, I must dwell on that for some time.
I talk more about this idea on this blog in a post called the science of awe.
So how do you reflect on something you have just read:
- Take note as you read
- Ask questions that start. Why does this make me feel? What am I feeling? What does this mean? What does that look like? You are engaging your mind with the text more profoundly, letting you get the most out of the content.
- Talk to other readers. They are online and offline. Find out what they are saying and compare it to your note. Get new insight into the book and learn more.
The Second Read – Testing How Much You Understand
Sometimes, you must test how much you understand a subject by reviewing how much you know. In a classroom, you are being tested, but there are other ways to know you understand what you are talking about.
I once used deliberate practice to learn a new skill and wrote about it on this blog. This an example of applying something you have learned and teaching others. The idea forces you to question and be sure of what you know.
One of the best reading strategies you can use is the Feynman technique. Although it’s designed for learning complex subjects like quantum physics, you can apply it to reading. The idea is grouped into four steps:
- Study the concept or topic
- Explain to a five-year-old
- Reflect and refine
- Organize and review
Let’s steal the second point. All you have to do is teach what you have learned to a kid.
Why a kid? Choosing a kid means you will have to use simple language without complicating the concept. If you can not use words that are easy to understand, it means you haven’t understood the topic.
Another way to test if you get it is to go out into the world and test the knowledge. So you have learned how to write a novel. Go out in the world and write your first book.
I once read that understanding a book is just about getting obsessed with it and rereading it until it submits its secrets to you. You can use the same idea for critical reading. But how much time do you have? I read the Ones Who Walk Away Omelas more than five times before I get it.
In summary, these are three things you can do to test if you understand during the second read.
- Explain it to an imaginary five-year-old kid
- Go out in the world and practice what you have read. Experiment if you can.
- Get obsessed with the concept by studying and revisiting your reading material
So, How Do You Read Critically?
First, start with admitting you have time. It takes about 6 hours to read a book of 100k words. The other things to do can be summarized as getting obsessed with the concept or book by asking questions and finding the correct answers inside and outside what you are reading.
For more critical reading material: Have we forgotten how to read critically? by Kate Harding.