Question from the email:

“How do you read a text critically? Do you have any advice or insights on what the actually looks like?”

This is a fantastic question and something I actually teach a class at writing conferences and workshops about. I’ve given an abbreviated version of my presentation on becoming a critical reader here.


Photo courtesy

Text Analysis

To do a critical reading of the text, I suggest using 6 different colors and a yellow highlighter, or a black pen and a pack of 6 highlighters. We’ve color-coded it as follows, but feel free to create your own system. The point is to annotate what you are analyzing. When using a color, or even a highlighter, it may be best to underline the text, though there are some areas we suggest using a box around a specific word.

  • GREEN: Description (Description of characters or setting, and Worldbuilding details)
  • RED: Characters and characterization (First mention, highlight the name in yellow and put a red square around it)
  • PURPLE: Status Quo / Conflict / Antagonistic Force 
  • BLUE: Dialogue
  • PINK: Romance
  • Suspense or Intrigue or Guiding the Reader’s Expectations
  • YELLOW HIGHLIGHTER: Misc. to note: Foreshadowing, Showing, emotion, issues to note, Inciting Incident

You can buy the Sharpie pens and get all these colors or the Bic Cristal Pens and a yellow highlighter. I’ve found those are my favorite when analyzing a text.



Decide what your main goal for reading the text is and what you want to get out of analysis. Sometimes it works best if you focus: I’m reading this book to learn more about characterization, but will catch anything else that sticks out to me.

It also helps if you have a notebook to write down any things thoughts in nearby. You can also keep notes on your computer or even within the margins of the book itself.


Highlight (or underline)…

  • any weaknesses or strengths you find in the story
  • strong sentences
  • Stop and analyze each scene at the end of each chapter. What was the scene goal? How was the pacing? How did the chapter start and end?
  • Analyze the categories above. Highlight both strengths and weaknesses and mark it as such.


  • Analyze the story as a whole.
  • What was the Story Question?
  • What was the main character’s goal?
  • If there was one, what was the antagonist’s goal?
  • What were the plot twists, if any? If it caught you by surprise, how did that happen?
  • How did the ending make you feel? Did the ending fulfill the subconscious promise to the reader? Was the main character changed by the events? If so, how did the main character change?
  • What was the main theme? What did the characters learn? What did you as the reader learn?



  1. The One and Only Ivan (first 30 pages) by Katherine Applegate
  2. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
  3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  4. Twilight (prologue + Chapter 1) by Stephenie Meyer
  5. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  6. Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda
  7. The Da Vinci Code (Prologue + Chapter 1) by Dan Brown
  8. A Game of Thrones (Prologue) by George R.R. Martin
  9. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  10. Jaws by Peter Benchley


  • Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta – Plot Twists & Character Backstory & Theme
  • Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – Story Structure (pay special attention to plot twists and building to the climactic moment at the end of the novel and within each scene–added bonus: notice how descriptions are interwoven with character)
  • Nation by Terry Pratchett – Theme (also pay attention to characterization, dialogue, setting and description, and writing POC and female characters)
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo or Saving Francesca by Melena Marchetta – Theme
  • Guards, Guards or Witches Abroad or Night Watch by Terry Pratchett – Dialogue
  • Shutter or Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda – Pacing/tension
  • The Way He Lived by Emily Wing Smith – Voice, Style, and Point of View
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie or Feed by M.T. Anderson – Voice
  • Red Rising by Pierce Brown – World Building (pay special attention to setting descriptions)
  • The Song of Achilles or Circe by Madeline Miller or Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda – Polished Prose
  • The Thief – unreliable narrator

Notes: (1) Some of these books may take 50-100 pages to get into, but it is worth it. (2) To gain the most out of a book, read it at least 3 times. The first time for plot. The second time with a highlighter and pen to mark good sentences and examples of writing well done. The third time to really deconstruct and analyze what the author has done: for the plot as a whole, for each scene, and with each line. (3) You can also dissect every one of these books as a good example for characters, prose, and plot.

Analyze All Text For:

  • 1st page and Hook
  • Target Audience and Audience Integration
  • Characterization; Character Goals and Motivations
  • Character Introductions
  • Emotional Resonance
  • Setting and Description
  • Show, Don’t Tell
  • Dialogue
  • Antagonist Force
  • End of Chapter Twist or Surprise

Other Things to Look For: 

  • Character Role Functions
  • Final Polish of Prose
  • Suspense and Intrigue
  • Blocking
  • Romance
  • Humor
  • Voice and Tone
  • Clichés and Tropes
  • Worldbuilding
  • Beats and Moments
  • Plot Question
  • Character Arcs and Character Role Functions
  • Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Characters
  • Antagonists and System Characters
  • Scene & Sequel and Scene Structure
  • Worldbuilding
  • Exposition and Narrative
  • Beats and Moments
  • Plot and Structure
  • Pacing
  • Theme (Read: Nation OR Watch: Man of La Mancha, All About Eve)
  • Plot Twists and Guiding the Reader’s Expectations (And Then There Were None, Gone Girl)
  • Female and Minority Characters – Pitch Dark

Additional Books: 

Saving Francesca, The Book Thief, The Fault in Our Stars, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Martian, The Mediator: Haunted, Prom Dates from Hell,

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