Hey, it’s Alvin!
Last time, I dove into the importance of reading past the title because titles can never convey the full depth and meaning of the text it represents. We looked at how reading can help you overcome the toughest challenges, as it did for me. Today, I’ll share with you a reading technique the smartest people use to get the most out of what they read.
When I was about 12 to 13 years old, I had an English teacher who decided to teach us critical thinking as part of our English lessons. A big component of that was critical reading, which is a multi-step process that helps you get the most out of whatever you’re reading by thinking critically about it.
But what I learned was that critical reading isn’t just about reading. It’s about understanding, empathy, and keeping an open mind. These are all critical skills civilized people need to live peacefully with one another.
Unfortunately, skills like critical reading have been dying a slow death over the decades. I know because I’ve taken a few writing courses in recent years. Every one of them had a module that taught us how to make catchy titles and headlines. Why? Because 50% to 80% of people do not read past the headline. In fact, I bet you know someone who likes to share news articles because they got angry with the headlines. But then, when you read it, you found the headline didn’t accurately reflect the content.
If we want to live peacefully with one another, we have to understand one another. Critical reading is a necessary part of that. The steps vary a bit depending on who you ask about the process, but these are the ones that stand out to me:
Step 1: Skim.
Skim through the whole piece quickly to get a sense of how it’s structured. This will give you an idea of what the writer is presenting and how the writer is presenting it. So, if you want answers to specific questions, you’ll have a sense of where to look. This is also a good time to get a general idea of what the writer is trying to say.
Step 2: Read.
This step requires you to slow down, so you can understand what the writer is trying to say with each sentence, paragraph, and section of the text. It’s not just about grasping what the writer is saying on the surface. It’s about reading between the lines and making sense of subtle details in how the writer is expressing their ideas to grasp deeper meanings behind what’s written. If you read too fast, you’ll miss these details. Some people like to take note of thoughts and questions that emerge in their minds as they read.
Step 3: Summarize.
In 3 to 5 sentences, summarize what you read in your own words, but from the writer’s perspective. Some people like to summarize after each paragraph, or section. Others like to summarize after reading an entire written piece. When you do it is up to you.
Summarizing helps you make sense of what you read in your own way while respecting the writer’s point of view. In doing so, I find it helps me remember what I read. Difficulties with summarizing shows a lack of understanding.
Step 4: Reflect.
This step is all about thinking beyond what you read. There are many ways to reflect. But if you need some inspiration, here are a few common questions you can ask yourself to get those brain juices flowing:
On the author.
What motivated the author to write the piece? Could they be motivated to show (or hide) specific types of information to (or from) you?
Was there another way the author could have presented the information? Why do you think the author presented the information the way they did?
On the connections between what you read and your life.
What did you learn and how does it relate to your own life? How does it impact your family, community, society, etc.?
Was what you read consistent with your experiences? How did it differ and why?
On the information presented in the text.
Was what you read logically consistent? Were there contradictions? If so, what may have led to those contradictions?
Were the writer’s arguments supported by evidence? Was the evidence accurate, objective, empirical, etc.?
The last step of critical reading forces the reader to step back and think about what they just read from their own point of view in a conscious, deliberate way. This lets the reader think independently and formulate their own opinions without undue influence from the writer. Yes, it is possible to hold two ideas in your mind at the same time with understanding and practice.
The value of critical reading is it lets you understand what you read on a deep level and from the point of view of the writer. Just as good writing requires empathizing with the reader, good reading requires empathizing with the writer. It’s mutual.
That’s how critical reading (and thinking) allow people who disagree to get along.
Remember how I said that some readers don’t read past the title or headline, then get mad about it? This means some people aren’t even skimming. They’re not even doing STEP FREAKING ONE.
So, what are people doing with their time? According to Statista, people are spending more time than ever on social media. And that makes sense because all the major social media platforms of today are all designed to capture and retain your attention.
And the number one social media platform at user retention at the time of this writing is TikTok. Here’s how YouTuber, Burdie, describes his experience with it:
A lot of people… just blindly use it without really knowing what it’s doing to them. You kind of just open it and you’re just flooded with instantaneous dopamine hits. As soon as you scroll down on a video, another one pops up.
For me, I just felt like it was wasting time. Sometimes you even go on there for hours at a time and you don’t even realize it. You open your phone, and you created this habit for yourself where you constantly end up in a loop where you just give yourself instant dopamine hits.
And sometimes you go on there without even realizing it since it’s just a habit at this point. And going on TikTok really doesn’t do anything for you most of the time. You’re just gonna end up forgetting what you even saw on TikTok. Like honestly, I don’t remember half the shit I’ve seen on TikTok.
I don’t use TikTok, but I’ve had a similar experience with Twitter. There were times I spent an hour on the platform and wondered where the time went. Burdie mentioned forgetting half the TikToks he watched, but I never found a single tweet memorable. Many tweets are generic messages repeated by different accounts, so I don’t even remember who said what. There are already people who get high (on dopamine) and forget what happened while they were high. They’re called drug addicts and alcoholics.
If we apply Burdie’s experience with TikTok, and my experience with Twitter to critical reading, you can see that it’s like the platforms are designed to keep users stuck looping on step 1. TikTok is designed for skimming videos. Twitter is designed for skimming tweets. People rarely move beyond step 1 because there’s no time for that. You gotta watch or read the next thing that’s shoved in your face.
Social media giants only want one thing from you: your attention. Keeping you on their platform means you’re served more ads, which means more money for them. But we know from psychology that each person’s attention is limited. So, if social media has taken all of it, you’ll have none of it left for, say… thinking. It’s a skimming trap. And these companies have no qualms about that. Don’t think; consume. It’s what they want.
And because people are stuck perpetually skimming, they’re losing their ability to understand one another. Without time for reflection, people are losing their ability to think for themselves in nuanced ways. People are losing their ability to live with those they disagree with. That’s a dangerous path society is heading down.
Just as our predecessors had to come to terms with cigarettes being addictive and harmful, it’s time for our generation to start being conscious of our social media consumption habits. Infants really shouldn’t be staring at tablets while their parents are staring at smartphones. That’s just depressing. And we can’t count on companies and governments to do the right thing when they have financial incentives to keep everyone addicted.
We have to help ourselves.
There are different ways to kick bad habits. But I’m particularly inspired by the approach Andrew Edstrom took to quit nicotine after a decade and a half of addiction. Please check out his harrowing tale in his newsletter, The Not-so-Daily Drew. In Andrew’s words, “it’s easier to swap out a bad habit for a less-harmful habit than it is to quit entirely.” By swapping a bad habit for a less bad one repeatedly over time, you can eventually quit it entirely. At the very least, you will have more control over it.
So instead of watching TikToks, watch longer-form videos. Instead of tweets, read more short-form articles. Instead of short-form articles, read more long-form articles. Instead of long-form articles, read books. All the while, practice critical reading.
Last year, I joined a newsletter writing community, (which is where I met Andrew). As part of this community, I help review other people’s newsletters. This didn’t just allow me to immerse in longer-form writing. It let me practice critical reading. Because if I want to be a good reviewer, I have to give meaningful feedback. So, I have to slow down and understand what the writer is trying to convey and reflect on their messages. Because of all that, I managed to “pay it forward” by opening myself up to (and helping) others - something I had long struggled to do.
Skimming might give you quick highs, but critical reading lets you connect with others in a deeper, meaningful way. Or, as my friend and avid reader Christopher Coffman says, critical reading leads to “a calmer mental state from feeling integrated with a truly diverse and rich universe, not just with a shallow projection of our own basest desires and fears.”
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of critical reading. Reply to email@example.com if you have questions or comments. Would you like to learn more about critical reading? Let me know. Maybe I’ll dive into it more in future editions. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.
I love this post, Alvin. In fact, this is how research papers should be read as well. Just goes to show that the fundamental skills are the same :)