Saturday, July 16, 2011

Critical Thinking about Reading Romance

I'm not a critical reader.  I read for pleasure, for entertainment, for fun.  Outside of my job, for instance, I rarely read non-fiction aside from a few "The History Of..." books that give me a wide overview of a particular period, culture or historical event.

I've tried reading a book at my regular pace with a pen and paper in hand to jot down notes.  This only worked when I was giving a book report afterwards.  In adulthood, I find that it robs me of the very pleasure for which I read.  What's the fun of starting and stopping your reading every few pages so you can write down an interesting observation on the plot or main character or, perhaps more importantly for another writer, stylistic device?

Yet, for my writing, I understand that reading a romance novel critically could help me to craft my own writing.  Not to mention the fact that uncovering the secrets of some of the best-selling romance writers can only give my writing a boost!

So how do I read critically without losing my pleasure as a reader?  I employ two alternative tactics.

Read slow

In this method, I read the book very slowly -- yes, with a pen and notepad beside me, and I take note of style points and good use craft techniques as I read.  I take frequent breaks in natural sections of the book, for instance, at the end of each chapter.  Often, the chapters themselves and broken up by several lines to indicate a change of time or scene and I make use of these natural break points to summarize the plot and the book's progression.

At the end of this process, I have a fulsome account of both the book and the way in which the author chose to present it stylistically.

Read twice

The first time I read a book I want to critique, I read it once all the way through, just as I would any other pleasure book.  Then I read it again.  This time, I read slowly, I jot down points and comments, I summarize the plot, and I note down interesting techniques and turns of phrase.

When I read the book the first time, I have nothing to show for it.  But I do have the experience any other reader would have and that too could form a part of my review.

I'm a fast reader so the method I prefer is the latter one: read a book once as a reader and the second time as a critic.  It's the best of both worlds.

Photo courtesy of winnond at


  1. You touched on an important dilemma, Nan :) Since I've been writing seriously, I, too, often find myself torn between being a reader and a writer when reading a book. I just can't help stopping to admire a particularly powerful scene or a fantastically setup internal conflict.

    I've tried reading twice - once to just enjoy the story and second time - to look at the craft; but I found this method too slow. So now I try to do 'just reading' the first time round. And if I like the book, I then go through it again, but this time skimming through most of narration and stopping at the best/relevant to me scenes. I mark them with PostIt notes and description of what's of nmterest in the scene. I can then come back to these excerpts when necessary.

  2. Kate: I completely agree about the difficulty in switching from reading as a writer vs. reading simply as a reader.

    I like your method; it's not too far from mine.

    Thanks for commenting!