Three types of reading: ideas, targets & explorations

I’ve been asked to give a short talk on the topic of ‘active reading’ to our students. The request got me thinking about my reading practices . I realised that, very broadly speaking, I do three types of reading. What varies is how focused the reading is and how closely it is tied to particular writing plans.

Ideas reading

This is the type of reading I do when I’m trying to get to grips with a field that I might be moving into or which I think might help with my plans. This is the type of reading I do when I’m trying to develop my ideas but when I’m not exactly sure where things are heading. This requires reading across books looking for some inspiration and trying to find something to develop, apply or synthesize. This reading is like building the scaffolding to support a concept or argument. This is the kind of foundational reading needed to be able to situate what I’m doing and that puts the writing into a network of ideas. I see this as providing the groundwork for propogating thinking and the trellis to guide mutating thoughts. It also helps to see what is there already and to learn new things.

Targeted reading

This type of reading is a bit more instrumental and I use it to help to put flesh on the bones of a writing project. Targeted reading deals directly with enriching the specifics of a field and providing the nuance. I often do this when writing projects are well under way and when I have a sense of where they are heading. Being in the later stages means that topics can be searched and specific materials can be read to further the writing and advance the arguments being developed. This is very specific and often means that I turn to texts with a fairly clear idea of what I want to get out of them.

Exploratory or experimental reading

The above two types are very closely related to research and writing plans. The third type of reading is completly and consciously disconnected from my immediate writing (although sometimes it ends up accidently triggering ideas or shaping my plans). With this third type of reading I deliberately try to avoid things in my field or which are directly connected to my projects. They are sometimes social science texts but are often things that are of general interest. I imagine this as being exploratory or experimental. It’s a kind of antidote to the more instrumental reading. I try to keep the fun in learning new things and just finding stuff out. Fiction and non-fiction. Anything that catches my attention. Sometimes this inadvertently ends up in some unexpected connection to my writing project being made, in other cases it ends up in my teaching or I find interesting writing styles or structures that I try to learn from. I sometimes even end up writing reviews of these books. Often though, this reading has no direct outcome, sometimes it just ends up triggering something unexpected. I don’t always have much time for this kind of reading, unfortunately. But it feels like something worth holding on to. I feel like it stops me getting trapped into certain limits or fences.

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