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How Critical Reading and Thinking Can Enhance Your Writing
2011, Q1 (April 04, 2011)
By David Dick, STC Fellow
David Dick
David Dick

My vivid memories of high school and college was the weekend homework assignments that involved reading several chapters from a textbook, and answering questions at the end of the chapter. The students who earned the best grades were the ones who thoroughly answered the questions and could discuss the material during classroom discussion. It was evident from how well they participated in classroom discussion that they did not skim the chapters for key words and phrases—they critically read the material and checked resources to verify the author’s facts. Such a discipline would carry over into our careers where a significant proportion of our work is reading.

Whether you create documents from multiple sources or from original work, you should follow a discipline of understanding what you read by that I mean checking sources, and verifying currency and accuracy of information with subject matter experts. Anything to the contrary and you are only proofreading for grammar and punctuation.

1.1. How to Read Critically

Whenever you read, read to understand “how,” “why,” and “what.” Look for the elements of reasoning: purpose, question at issue, point of view, information, concepts, implications, assumptions, conclusions, context, and alternatives.

Whenever you read, read to understand “how,” “why,” and “what.” Look for the elements of reasoning: purpose, question at issue, point of view, information, concepts, implications, assumptions, conclusions, context, and alternatives.

The following guidelines will help you to read critically.

  1. With pencil in hand, skim the contents of the document. Pay attention to clarity of chapter titles, headings, diagrams, graphics, and illustrations.
  2. Look for the author’s main point, and mark it when you find it.
  3. When you see a word, acronym, sentence, and paragraph that you do not know or understand, mark it and look it up later.
  4. Pause from time-to-time to think about what you have read and review your notes.
  5. Write key ideas and main points in the margins. When you re-read the document later, you can quickly skim the text for main ideas without re-reading the entire text.
  6. Ask “What?” Why?” “Who?” “How?” and “So what?” questions. If the answers are unclear—mark it. Keep a log of your questions, ideas, findings, and comments.
  7. Pay attention to reasoning. If the reasons are not clear to you—mark them and look them up later.
  8. Look for connections to other documents that might be helpful as resources.
  9. Re-read the document and compare your initial findings with your new understanding. Have your questions been answered? If not, who can answer them?

This level of reading is not practical if reading for pleasure. However, this level of reading will help you to achieve a deeper understanding of the topic if you are reading a report or product documentation, reading a book to write a book review, or reading a proposal (Request for Proposal).

1.2. How to Apply Critical Thinking to Reading

There are many positive and useful uses of critical thinking such as formulating a workable solution to complex problems, deliberating as a group about what action to take, and analyzing assumptions. Critical thinking contributes to deeper understanding and challenging accepted wisdom with strong arguments, and allows for more completely developed thoughts.

The following advice will help you to apply critical thinking to writing.

  • Read with an open mind.
  • Challenge the currency and validity of the information with an aim towards deeper clarification and understanding.
  • Find answers to “What?” Why?” “Who?” “How?” and “So what?” questions.
  • Assume that processes and procedures are incomplete until you have tested them yourself.

If you apply these guidelines to your reading, you will notice the ease by which you gain more from what you read. You might not discover the answers to all questions, but you will be better prepared to consult subject matter experts to answer some of them.

1.3. How Critical Reading and Supports Substantive Writing

According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, any significant deficiency in reading entails a parallel deficiency in writing. Likewise, any significant deficiency in writing entails a parallel deficiency in reading. Simply stated, if you have poor reading skills, you are likely to have poor writing skills.

Critical reading means being actively engaged in what you read by developing a clear understanding of the author’s ideas, evaluating the arguments and evidence provided to support these arguments, and forming your own opinions. Critical thinking clarifies goals, examines assumptions, finds hidden values, evaluates evidence, and assesses conclusions. By employing critical reading and critical thinking, you gain more from what you read. The outcome is that you can summarize a paragraph or two of what you have read.

According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, by enhancing critical reading and critical thinking skills, we enhance our writing skills.

  • Clarify purposes: an author’s purpose (when you read), and your purpose (when you write).
  • Formulate clear questions: those that an author is asking (as we read) and questions we are pursuing (as we write).
  • Distinguish accurate and relevant information from inaccurate and irrelevant information: in texts that we read and in preparation for our own writing.
  • Reach logical inferences and conclusions: based on what we read, and in preparation for writing.
  • Identify significant and deep concepts: those of an author and those we can to guide our thinking while we write.
  • Distinguish justifiable from unjustifiable assumptions: that an author is using, or that we are using in our own thinking as we write.
  • Trace logical implications: those of an author’s thinking, and those that may follow from our writing.
  • Identify and think within multiple viewpoints: those that an author presents (or fails to present when relevant) and those relevant to the issues of our writing.

1.4. Final Thoughts

The value you add to any documentation project is reading all you can find about the subject matter so that you can ask constructive questions of subject matter experts and write to a level of detail that educates and informs the reader.


Steel, Erik. “How Does Critical Thinking Improve Writing Skills?”


“The International Critical Thinking Reading and Writing Test.”

Fails, Ava. “Critical Thinking Skills Necessary in Writing.”


Critical Thinking.


Bird, John. “How to Read Critically.”


“What Is Critical Reading?”


“How to Improve Critical Thinking Skills.”

About the Author

David is a member of the Washington, D.C. community, and Editor of Usability Interface, newsletter of the Usability and User Experience Community.

David Dick can be reached at davidjdick2000 at yahoo dot com dot . End of article.

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