Critical reading for better writing.


I’ve just begun mentoring young writers in the past couple of months. I currently have two mentees. One is less formal arrangement, I’m just reviewing her work from time to time. The other is structured, including goals, tasks and weekly catch ups. One of the most important activities I recommend, right after goal-setting, is ‘critical reading’.

What is critical reading?

It is just thoughtfully reviewing everything you read, looking for lessons in it. This doesn’t have to be Wren and Martin; Reader’s Digest or even Chetan Bhagat would do just fine. When you’re reading stuff, explore the following.

  • How does this make me feel?

  • What part of the writing is evoking that feeling?

  • If I have to emulate it, what is the trick I’m taking away from it?

  • What would I have done differently?

  • If I had to replicate this in an entirely different situation, how would I?

Remember to focus on the writing, not the idea. It is not about what’s being said, but how. Let’s take an example:


This is a paragraph from Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer.

How does it make you feel?

Shocked? Is it a dramatic shock or just taken aback a bit delightfully? Can you visualise her using bleach to scrub a bathroom?

What part of the writing evokes that feeling?

The matter-of-fact narration? The active denial of focussing on a heinous act, by pontificating about bleach? Saving the punch line for the end?

When you read something that captures your imagination, sit with it. Think about it. Write down your lessons. Emulate them in your own work. Oh, don’t forget to enjoy the reading, in all this!