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Analytical reading and efficient writing
And the questions to ask while reading a book
This is the summary of the first half of the book “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler. (Since I’m on it: this a deep book on epistemology in general, not a shallow self-improvement book as it may appear from the title. Worth noting that the author is a prominent 20th-century philosopher, not a journalist. I highly recommend reading this book to all people who consider themselves rational.)
Adler describes in detail the process of so-called analytical reading. The goal of analytical reading is to elevate oneself to the author’s level of understanding, to think critically.
One of the key ideas from the book is analytical reading and efficient writing rules are reciprocal. The rules of efficient writing are linked in bullet points under the corresponding analytical reading rules. However, these practices of efficient writing concern only with how accurately the readers will perceive your ideas and arguments, but not with how well these ideas will take root in the minds of the readers. Thus, efficient writing practices occupy only the rational branch of the Means of persuasion.
I publish this in Engineering Ideas because analytical reading is an important skill of a knowledge worker. Efficient writing (more generally, effective communication) is an important engineering skill, too, because presenting knowledge work is as important as doing it.
The following rules of analytical reading can be followed by answering the questions to ask while reading a book:
Categorise the book: see Categories of books
Focus on big ideas of the book: state the unity of the whole book in a sentence or, at most, a few. Don't be satisfied with a "feeling" but not being able to summarise the book because Thoughts seem to be clearer and more substantial than they actually are before they are written down.
Reciprocal writing practices: Summarise your writing in the beginning as well as the end, Write around a single thread.
State the structure, the parts of the book that constitute the whole (so they are connected; not merely a collection that doesn't make up a united whole). Your structure shouldn't necessarily correspond to the author's division.
You cannot know the whole of the book without knowing the parts, so without outlining the structure you cannot know if your summary (rule 2) is true.
Articulate the questions that author had, their objectives (in practical books: why they preach what they preach?) the problems they are solving in the book on both the high level (to answer by the summary) and the lower level (to answer by the structure). Questions should be logically ordered to explain the logic of the structure.
Find important words and through them come to terms with the author.
In your writing, use words consistently in a single meaning (and always use the same word for each concept). Emphasise terminology, define terms explicitly. If you use synonyms for some term, state that explicitly.
In your writing, aim for unambiguous explicitness. Everything that is relevant and statable should be said as explicitly and clearly as possible.
Find paragraphs in the book that state its important arguments. If arguments are not thus expressed, construct them. Skimming a book (summaries and conclusions first) helps to construct the arguments during analytical reading because arguments are already familiar to you. This is particularly important for reference books: don't try to use them before getting the editor's advice on how to do it.
Summarise your writing in the beginning as well as the end: create good paragraphs expressing your arguments in a nutshell. Put them both in front of the longer discussion (abstracts) and after the discussion (summaries).
Find out the author's solutions. Ask follow-up questions about the problems discussed in the book:
Which questions has the author actually answered (and what are the answers = solutions) and which did they fail to answer?
Did they raise any new problems?
Reciprocal writing practices:
Rules 10-15: Criticise the book rationally.
Questions to ask while reading a book
What kind of book is this? See Categories of books.
What this book is about, in summary?
What is the structure of the book's argument?
For practical books: what goals does the author have, what do they want to achieve with the proposed practice?
What are the author's key propositions and arguments?
Which questions has the author actually answered (and what are their answers = solutions) and which did they fail to answer?
Did they raise any new problems?
Is this true? For practical knowledge, see Criteria of practical truth.
What of it? For practical knowledge, Practice what you believe is true.
Do you know more useful practices of efficient writing, or questions to ask while reading a book? Please share them in comments!
Thank you for reading :)