Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

What is the Real Difference?

So how is "A" quality reading different?

According to Ed, where the "C" reader engages in literal reading and the "B" reader in interpretive reading, the "A" reader does critical/applied reading.

Before going on to explain what that means, however, let me make a parenthetical observation. My English department colleague Carolyn Beard Whitlow has pointed out to me that this scheme I'm developing here has a problem. It identifies "literal" reading with the "C" level, whereas in some contexts "literal" reading may be the most important reading one can do. For example, if one is reading literary texts generated by writers from cultures which have traditionally been regarded as Other, what one needs to do is to first and foremost hear what they are saying: one must suspend one's preconceptions and interpretive propensities and just listen to the voice and attend to what is on the page.

Interpretive and Literal Reading Carolyn is right, so let's not over-generalize. Instead, we will restrict ourselves to the example situation we started with: reading a textbook chapter.

Critical/applied reading: according to Ed, what distinguishes the "A" reader is a particular kind of active reading. For starters, this reader reads with pen in hand. Instead of simply underlining, however, the "A" reader engages in a conversation with the text, and in one or both of the following ways. Critical reading means just that, reading critically. It means not taking anything for granted just because it appears on the page. It means raising questions, arguing with the writer, challenging the writer's hidden assumptions. It means being aware of other ways the writer could have presented the material. It means looking at the edges to see what has been left out.

Applied reading takes the critical reading one step further. What is the significance of what the writer is saying? How does it apply to the world you inhabit? How does it connect with other readings you have encountered in the course? How does it connect with readings or discussions from other courses you have taken or are taking?

I remember seeing a copy of a 20-volume dissertation in the Kent State University library once. What the author, a Harvard student, had done was to go through Herman Melville's personal library and to collect all of the annotations in Melville's books. By compiling and organizing this material, the author demonstrated one facet of Melville's genius: he was a critical/applied reader, constantly in deep dialogue with the authors he was reading.

So how does all of this apply to writing?

It occurred to me after our conversation that Ed's distinctions could be applied to writing as well.

The "C" writer could well be described as a "literal" writer. Such an author tends to reproduce material (taken directly from textbook chapters, for example) without much interpretation and without attending much to the material's larger significance. Not much questioning, not much radioactive insight.

The "B" writer, on the other hand, does a fine job of bringing matters forth in their complexity and showing subtleties of connection and interpretation. This is a writer who thinks hard and shows us a perspective that would not have been obvious to us if we had read the writer's data ourselves.

Figure The "A" writer, however, is in a different space-time continuum entirely. Whereas the "B" writer may do an excellent job of working his or her material, startling us with dazzling insights, s/he may, like the "C" writer, still be a prisoner of the text/world in which they're working in. The "A" writer is just as attentive to this world, but not from inside. The "A" writer is positioned outside the text/world, and is simultaneously aware of all of the other worlds of experience in the galaxy: personal experience, the past, other texts, other fields of study.

This simultaneous awareness produces the comparisons, analogies, similes, and metaphors which are some of the devices by which we recognize the "A" writer. What is a metaphor but the iridescent track of an insight linking two worlds?