2. Keeping a Reading Journal

Writing down your reaction to what you have read is a good way to sharpen your reading ability, develop your analytic skills, and keep track of your study. journal imageAfter completing your reading—or occasionally in the middle of your reading—write down your response. It may be just a few words, or it may be longer, depending on how fully you want to develop your response. Use whatever form of writing suits your fancy and fits the occasion–a sentence or paragraph, a list, an outline, a dialogue with the author, a poem, etc. Date your entries: you will see that your response depends in part on when you have written it down. You may find it most convenient to keep your journal on loose–leaf sheets so that you can add or subtract pages.

What to Write?

Consider writing about the reading assignment in any of the following ways, according to what has occurred to you either while you were reading or afterwards when you have been thinking about your reading or discussing it:

  • How does the reading relate to something you have done or seen or read elsewhere?
  • Talk back to the author or the character: compliment or criticize him or her; argue with the ideas or viewpoint in the text, or support them from your own experience or other reading.
  • What effect does the text have, and how does it achieve that effect? What is your personal response to the reading, and what exactly in the text accounts for that response? Is it funny? moving? exciting? preposterous? profound? or what? Define the effect as fully as you can, and then determine what causes that effect. Is it the kind of language, the selection of detail, the tone, the style, the form, or what?
  • Identify a literary element or rhetorical device (such as a metaphor, a symbol, an image, the meter, a syntactical construction, the diction, irony, or point of view) and explain how it works or what makes it effective.
  • Isolate one or two details and examine their importance to the larger context.
  • Identify a problem and try to solve it.
  • Ask a question (such as one of the questions in the previous section) and answer it, or explore the possibilities of answering it.
  • Take up an idea discussed in class that you want to amplify or argue against.
  • Write about some observation or question that you wanted to raise in class.
  • Compare one story (or poem or play or character or situation or style) with another.
  • Identify a controversial issue; argue for one side and then argue for the other, as in a debate.
  • Imitate or parody a passage.

Your reading journal need not be polished. It should show your thoughtful attention to the reading. You may find it interesting and helpful to exchange your journal with a classmate to compare comments. In some classes reading journals may count as part of class participation.

Why Write in Your Reading Journal?

  • To articulate your response. Writing out your response will make you aware of otherwise unrecognized assumptions and possible inconsistencies. It will help you see more clearly what is going on in the text.
  • To confirm your response. You probably think you know how you feel about your reading, but putting it in writing forces you to come to terms with what you think and feel; that is, to find the best words to express your response. In doing so, you will examine both your response and the text more carefully.
  • To develop your ideas about what you have read. Stories and poems generate new ways of looking at things, at people, and at issues.
  • To work out a problem. As in working out a mathematical problem, the easy ones you can do in your head, but the difficult ones need to be written down so that you can work through them step by step.
  • To prepare for class discussion, to practice for writing essays, and to have a record of your reading to review for the final examination.
  • In other words, to extend and develop your ability to read.

Your reason for writing will determine how well you write. Figure out for yourself as you go along exactly what you want to accomplish in your writing. Determine your own purpose; set your own goal. Use your reading journal in whatever way you find most interesting, helpful, and enjoyable, as long as it reflects your attention to the reading.

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3: Critical Terms for Studying Literature