Over the next several posts, I’ll be doing a 5-part miniseries that threads together writing, reading, and education/curriculum.
Today’s initial post is on writing, reading, and comprehension.
Three questions an author or writing student should ask when deciding what to include and what to cut in a scene are:
- Is it relevant?
- Does it advance the plot?
- Does it contribute to character development?
The last point can be tricky, because if a section of writing (including dialogue) doesn’t immediately or obviously advance the plot, it could be in danger of being dismissed as irrelevant by the reader, even though it holds subtle but key information about the character’s mindset, motives, and personal hangups or limitations. These ultimately drive the story and the outcome through the character’s decisions.
This leads to the next point: reading for comprehension.
Reading for comprehension
Skimming versus reading
When teaching reading comprehension, teachers try to impart on impatient, often bored, students that skimming isn’t reading. In our information overload society, skimming has become a necessary survival skill, but it’s important to keep both skills intact—reading for comprehension and skimming for snippets of direct information—and to know the difference, including when to use which.
Novels are not always as overt as a two-by-four across the side of the head. They don’t come with flashing lights and alarms. Often, they require some life experience to digest. That’s why good literature has to be studied in school (although, granted, teachers can do it well or badly, but that’s not the fault of the literature).
A key factor of reading comprehension is inference–reading between the lines–cluing in to that which is not directly stated. Furthermore, in order to fully comprehend, we need to thread together tidbits of information about characters and situations found throughout the book. Sometimes these clues are subtle, so we need to pay attention!
Sometimes information is “text-based.” Skimming eyes can find it written directly in the text. More often, however, information has to be inferred, read between the lines, understood at a higher level. Reading for comprehension means taking a piece of work and seeing it as a unit, a whole, and identifying the message or messages within.
Increasingly, I’m finding that students approach reading comprehension homework and tests the way they search for something online: they scan and look for key words. Then they wonder why they’re getting so many questions wrong. They even state, “It wasn’t in the text!” No. Not directly. But by reading to comprehend the whole thing, or at least the paragraph or two in which the answer may be contained, it’s there.
Then there’s that in-between state of reading I call “blasting” through a novel. It’s not exactly skimming, but it’s not mindful reading either. The reader reads the novel too fast, catching only glaring action and concrete dialogue without registering the subtler points, often many of them.
Don’t be fooled by smooth writing. Remember:
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
~*Thomas Hood/Nathaniel Hawthorne
If we are not thinking and applying ourselves during reading, or we are skimming, we may miss the point. (By the way, this is also one cause of bad book reviews.)
This may sound like a lot of work for a recreational read, but if we are to get maximum enjoyment out of our travels through books, we have to pay attention to the culture and the scenery.
Next in the series: Pt. 2: Reading Comp Approaches for Teachers–How to Bring Back the Enjoyment of Reading, January 28.
*This quote is commonly attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne; however, Quote Investigator “provisionally credit[s] Thomas Hood with the version of the maxim he used in 1837” (via Susanna J. Sturgis). See also Easy Reading is Damn Hard Writing in Writingfeemail’s Blog.