Self-Study Techniques: Supplemental Materials
Formal education has advantages for those who thrive in structured learning. With a large push toward cooperative learning and promoting teamwork in curriculum, some learning styles can be neglected. The art of self-teaching was once the popular method, and there are as many advantages to this method as there are for cooperative learning. Just because it’s out of fashion doesn’t mean it’s ineffective.
We’ve discussed self-education sources in a previous post, but we’d like to focus more on using a book as a self-taught course.
Despite some elementary school pressures to believe everything your teacher says, learning from a book requires critical thinking. This term has a bad reputation among anyone who’s been in middle and high school in the last 20 years, so let’s get to the guts of it before going on. Critical thinking, simply defined, is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment”. People hoping to sound intelligent clutter up this definition.
Critical thinking, at least outside of academic circles, means reading with an awareness of a book/argument’s context. The author must be vetted. Is this a worthy teacher, with a real claim to authority? The claims must be tried first-hand, especially with instructional work. Do their directions produce the results they describe? Finally the wider world doesn’t cease to exist just because of one teacher’s limited scope. How does this argument fit within the larger context of life? This context varies with each reader, so yours really takes precedence. How does this argument, if taken fully (or even by limited degrees) look in practice? Is it possible? Feasible? Achievable? Worthy?
Though these questions are suited best to instructive or informative work, works of fiction (by all levels and in all genres) require this same concern for those who are reading to learn. Thanks to internet resources, reviews, blogs, and supplementary material in novels, critical reading of fiction is not only possible; it’s encouraged, even requested by the review system of online reading communities.
One caveat… This does not mean you should post your whole critical evaluation of the work with book sellers. Readers’ social networks are a better location for that, and people will be more willing to read your commentary.
Author(s): Read up on their credentials. Credits don’t make the man, but the types of awards and publisher can provide insight into their areas of strength. Other listed works can provide a clue to their style. Bio information is often pure fluff, unless they’re strong in the business. This has become much easier since the dawn of internet promotion and social networking. Most authors have a website with background information available, even months of blog posts leading up to the book’s release.
While a self-written bio is useful, other more indirect sources can show more information. Authors often make appearances at conventions, book fairs, clubs, and communities. If these are listed, which groups host them can be instructive as well. There’s quite a difference, for example, between appearing at an international writing convention as keynote speaker and appearing at the local library to run the grade school reading club. While neither is better or worse than the other, the types of appearances say quite a bit about their perspective and personal nature.
Publisher: Knowing about the publisher gives unique clues to the nature of the work. Other titles published often show a particular flavor of narrative; like edgy fiction, visual fantasy, or dark dystopian. The market, however (YA, adult, middle grade, etc.), can vary between the publisher’s individual imprints. Knowing/researching publishers and imprints of your favorite works (or each new read) is a marvelous form of education for anyone planning on writing to sell. It’s not simple and can take detective work away from the computer.
Introductions: Within a book, and not just nonfiction, an introduction provides a context from the author, translator, or publisher on the book’s content. A preface fills a similar function. When a book has both, they’re not typically penned by the same person. For a more detailed review of the different pieces in front matter material, Pat McNees created a succinct reference which can be looked at here: The Difference Between a Preface, Foreword, and Introduction.
Some of the finer introductions are found in collections, anthologies, and compilations, as they help explain why the reader should care about the material they’ve assembled. If it’s based on author, they may give biographical information. If it’s based on genre, they often give the context of the genre’s history and purpose. Fiction often only gains an introduction after the work or its author have become famous, so the introduction is often written many years after the main content.
Acknowledgements: This is often a tiny page, sometimes no more than a couple of lines. Don’t skip this. A well done acknowledgements page shows the character of the writer. Often it’s a brief way to deftly display the tone of the book. A self-help book would likely name a particularly successful advocate. A comedic fantasy will have a voice matching the particular humor style of the upcoming narrative. A religious book will invoke a religious tone, and bring to mind the deity or forces in power for the author. Barnes and Noble compiled a fabulous list of examples which you should review: The 25 Best Author Acknowledgements Ever Written.
Footnotes and References: While these are most common in academic writing, authors in many genres are making use of these secondary information sources. Little wonder these are cropping up, since they’re essentially hyperlinks in an analogue work. If these are included in fiction, please, take the time to look at them!
Good Omens, a cult classic work, has a wealth of these nuggets hidden in the lower margins. Authors who experiment with form will use these too, tucking background information away as a kind of reward for intent readers. References, while not as immediate as footnotes, are a woefully untapped research tool. These are the books that the author read while creating their work. These are whole worlds of information and insight that can guide a lengthy study of a subject or genre.
Books contain much more than they’re content. Supplemental material is made available to help the reader maximize their experience. It’s a real shame to waste it!