The Daily Journal, Sunday, March 17

In today’s Journal

▪ I’m on the road
▪ Topic: Critical Reading Plus
▪ Of Interest

Today I’m somewhere in southwest New Mexico braving the absolute beauty of nature. I’m probably poised some 500 feet above the roaring Gila River in the Lower Gila Box Wilderness.

The makeshift campsite is around 20 miles as the hawk flies north-northwest of Lordsburg and there’s a probably 10,000 year old pueblocito about a half-minute walk from the camp.

I wish all of you could see it, especially if you write westerns or SF. I even placed one detective/crime novel there, and my friend Dan Baldwin set at least two of his westerns there.

Topic: Critical Reading Plus

In yesterday’s “Of Interest” Tony DeCastro posted “Critical Reading.” I couldn’t agree with him more, and this topic won’t be critical of his, but will add to it.

I waited until today to post this so you would have read Tony’s post first. If you haven’t done so, I suggest you read it now. You can find it at

He’s right that if you set out to find something wrong, you will. I’m not sure I agree that I could find anything wrong in a work by Shakespeare other than the occasional slant rhyme, but otherwise he’s spot on.

To expand what he started, I wanted to add a couple of notes.

Even when sitting beneath my copyeditor hat, I don’t read critically. I just read for pleasure, and if something pops out at me, grabs my attention, I correct it.

This might be anything from a misplaced or overused comma to a misplaced modifier or a sudden switch in verb tense. It might be the noticeable and unnecessary repetition of the same sentence structure several times in a row. It might be massive paragraphs that are difficult to wade through. In that case, the passage is made much more interesting and engaging simply by hitting the Enter (Return) key a few times to start new paragraphs.

It might be other things. But always it’s something that jerks me out of the story. The true value of a copyeditor is his or her ability to spot things while reading for pleasure, and then repair (or recommend repair of) those things so they don’t trip up other readers. For this reason alone, a good copyeditor provides an invaluable service.

This too is why I use first readers for my own work. I actually insist they don’t read critically. My instructions always include, “Just enjoy the story. If something keeps you from enjoying it, point that something out to me.”

They usually find typos, wrong word usages, and inconsistencies. Now and then, owing to their expertise in a certain field (one is an expert on France and French, one is a cop, etc.), something grabs their attention so strongly that they recommend corrections outside the scope of the three areas listed in the first sentence. I am grateful when they do.

But they still aren’t reading critically. They’re reading for pleasure and simply pointing out places where they were snapped out of the story for whatever reason.

So in a way, copyediting and first-reading is in between what Tony was talking about in his post and reading for pleasure.

The other thing I want to mention here is intentional critical reading. It isn’t always a bad thing.

We’ve all read a passage in a book that blew us away because it was just that good.

As I read for pleasure the latest offering by Lee Child or Kevin Tumlinson or Sue Coletta or a host of others, when a passage knocks my socks off, I bookmark or dog-ear the page and continue reading.

After I’ve finished the story, I do my normal stuff. I write, tend to chores around the house, etc.

But when I’m in a learning mood, I go back to one of the books in which I’ve left dog-eared pages or bookmarks, open it and re-read that passage. For context, I usually read from a bit before the dialogue or description that blew me away to a little after. That reading, again, is strictly for pleasure.

Then I read the same passage again, critically, with “How did s/he do that?” in my mind. And that’s where I learn new techniques.

Often it’s a sensory description, like a smell that invokes a memory (in the character and in me) of a taste, or a sound that invokes a color.

But whatever it is, every time I exercise this version of critical reading, it further enriches my own writing. I recommend it.

Nothing for the daily diary today, and I’ll be back with the numbers when I’m finished foot dangling. (grin)

Of Interest

Be sure to check Dean Wesley Smith’s site at and the Kill Zone blog at


4 thoughts on “The Daily Journal, Sunday, March 17”

  1. Hi Harvey, I do some of the re-read activity you mention. I talk about it in the original reading for pleasure post… but I also confess that I don’t do it as often as I probably should due to my laziness (grin). I do have my go to authors that I return to study how the do certain aspects of craft ( ie Robert Parker for dialogue)… I suspect every one has their preferences for this. Almost like reader’s “voice”. Thanks for the shout out… I will link back to your post today.

    • Hi Tony. Thanks for your original post. As for go-to authors, I still have passages marked in a few Jack Higgins novels that I have yet to return to study, but I will. I learned a ton from Jack.

  2. Another technique that Dean recommends for studying a passage is typing it in, with your own usual formatting. Is it something you also do or do you prefer learning by analysing the passage without typing it in?

    In any case, thanks for the tip. I guess it’s a question of balance. It’s okay to read critically once in a while, for a specific passage or two, to learn a new technique. But only if you’ve read the whole story for pleasure first, and don’t get stuck into a spiral of reading everything critically. Reading needs to stay fun.

    • I used to do that. Now I just re-read it to see why it blew my socks off. (Back in the day, I didn’t like the way a short novel ended, so I wrote a new ending myself while trying to maintain the original author style. It was a learning experience.) As to your second paragraph, yes. Use the critical mind to learn — the use for which it was intended — and the creative voice to create.

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