You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About! Reading & Critiquing In Layers

Ah, more layers. I did a post awhile ago about Working In Layers. And now I’m expanding to talk about Reading & Critiquing In Layers.

What Is Layering?

As explained in my earlier post, think of layering like your body. Underneath everything is the skeleton. Add muscle tissue, skin, and then all the fine details that make the person interesting and unique on the outside.

When I spoke about Working In Layers, I explained how I edit in different stages or levels – or layers. It’s all the same concept. First I’ll write the story, then I’ll edit for fluff. Then I’ll edit for tension. Then I’ll edit for grammar, and so and so forth. Every layer adds something more to the work as a whole, and ultimately you’ll end up with a polished novel. I don’t like to do all of it at once. It’s too much. I find that if I work in layers, I can keep things much better organized and under control.

I also talk about layers as in layers or levels of meaning in a work. I also add layers like the symbolic layer. This often comes later when I can see how symbols and themes in the novel are coming together and where I can tighten them and make them shine.

What Is Reading In Layers?

I currently have my novel Monarch up for beta reading and up on its own novel blog for invited readers. After receiving some great feedback, I suddenly realized that like working in layers, we can also read in layers.

If you read The Great Gatsby, for instance, you might first read it for the PLOT layer. Then on your next read, since you know the plot, you’ll read for the SYMBOLS layer. Then maybe for the CHARACTERS layer. And so on and so forth. Being an English major, I usually read multiple layers at a time. However, I don’t think most readers do.

Judging from the feedback I’m receiving on Monarch, I’m beginning to see that many readers critique only specific layers. One specific reader (and no, it isn’t anyone who reads this blog) made me want to scream, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! Didn’t you see what I was trying to do with that point of view? Hello! It’s obvious. If you would just read a little more carefully!”

Then I took a step back and made myself breathe normally.
This reader was not seeing certain layers – besides the fact that I have not made that layer CLEAR enough yet, anyway. After realizing this, it was suddenly evident what I need to work on and which layer needs the most attention. I don’t want that layer to be obvious, but I certainly want it clearer than it is!

I don’t know about you, but I always read in multiple layers. Many readers pick up a book for only one layer – the ENTERTAINMENT or PLOT layer. I know I do sometimes. But many other readers are looking for something more to sink their teeth into.

What Is Critiquing In Layers?

My novel Monarch works on many different layers, but many of them are still not meshing right yet. It creates a discord that many readers cannot pinpoint.

For those of you who critique other works, try and remember that there may be several layers to get through. A good critique often involves more than one read-through. However, I know I certainly don’t have time to beta read a novel more than once! So I try and put my time to its best use and critique several layers as I go.

If something doesn’t feel right, I’ll step back and look at it from different angles. I’ll ask myself, is the writer trying to be symbolic here? Is that a layer I have not paid attention to yet? Sometimes it helps to take notes of certain threads and layers running through the story so you don’t forget.

But that’s just me. I’m a layer girl.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle


Davin Malasarn

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I realize that I’m biased when it comes to reading. My answer is, sometimes I read in layers and sometimes I don’t, and it depends on the book. For some books, I (wrongly) approach them assuming that they are going to only have a single layer. For other books, I go in looking for multiple layers just because I assume they’re going to be there. I think as a result, I probably miss out on layers in some books, which only makes my reading experience less satisfying. This recently happened to me when I read The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. There are more layers there than meets the eye, and I missed them until I decided to go online to read some criticism of the book.

I think I can’t help but to read in layers…I am trained to. 🙂 I might have a different outlook/approach than some of the other beta readers. I think it’s good for you to have as many approaches as possible. Most readers just want the story / action. It’s all good!

Do you read and critique in layers?Yes, yes, and yes.You are on to something important. When we give and receive feedback we need to focus on craft. That’s been my experience. Focusing on a layer is essentially focusing on one aspect of craft at a time. Now, as a reader, in order to make sense of someone elses book, it makes sense to take in the information and to look for patterns. That simply means taking the time to see how they work things out, how they make use of different aspects of craft.I could speak in theory all day, but let me move to some specifics.One of the most useful excercises I have ever done, and this was after at least five revisions of the whole novel, was to print off all the chapter introductions and all the chapter conclusions. I handed over a stack of the chapter introductions and asked my reader (who happened to be my wife) to rate them on a scale of one to five and stack them in like categories. She had a blast identifying the chapter introductions that worked and the ones that did not work nearly as well. Notice, we are focusing just on this one layer–an effective hook.Now here’s what’s so great. It made the communication about what works and what does not absolutely clear. She could compare a stellar opener to a dud. I looked at the effective openers and the duds and some patterns emerged. Most significantly, I learned that as a writer I often warm up, just like jogging before an all out sprint. The trick became realizing when the writing was really taking off.Bottom line is that focusing on the layer, or craft, called hooking the reader allowed me to see what worked and what didn’t through out the entire novel. It also made for clear communication between my reader and I. One more thing to add here. My wife is not always the most analytical type when it comes to fiction. She’d rather say that she liked this part and didn’t get into this other part, but does not always get excited about explaining why. However, focusing on one thing at a time, and having the examples cut out into pieces that could be moved around on a table, made it so that she had many analytical things she was excited to point out.

Jody Hedlund

Thank you for this excellent post! As you know, I’m just beginning the whole critique partnership thing. So I’m still struggling with how to approach my new crit. partner’s work. I like the idea of layers and focusing on one thing at a time!BTW, I’m mentioning your great idea in my post tomorrow and linking to your blog!And I really like Dave’s comment. Thank you!

I never thought of it in terms of layers. But I have been trying to reign myself in when critiquing. I found that I am much more critical of a work that’s prepublished than one that’s published. I’d pick out nit-picky ideas…or, worse yet, I wouldn’t be patient for that layer. With a published book, I expect the issue to resolve itself–but with a pre-published book, I’d be critical first.Now, I’m focusing more on smoothness of writing. If the story grabs me, I try not to make comments. If something stops my reading, then comment.Also, I am finding it much more beneficial to read the whole book. Whenever possible, I read the entire book as quickly as possible (to keep it fresh in my mind, not that I’m rushing). Then I have a running commentary on a separate piece of paper in which I note big issues, like plot points that don’t seem resolved, scenes that seem superfluous, etc. I also make comments in text about specific lines, short scenes, etc. So, while I didn’t do it consciously, I guess I do try to note the big things–the layers that don’t work.

I’m not sure I read in layers, but I pick up different things as I read through a second time. And sometimes working on something else or reading something else will give new meaning to a book. I do try to beta-read in layers, looking for patterns and hidden meanings is fun. But I know that I sometimes miss the point.And I know I don’t think in layers enough to write layers to a book. Are there layers to my writing? Possibly. Symbolism and deeper meaning slip in, but it usually starts as an inside joke. I like adding things to a story that only make sense if you’ve done X, Y and Z. Like slipping in references to books I like, Shakespeare, and Roman history. I tend to give names a double meaning. But for me that isn’t a layer. I don’t think people need to see it. I put it in my writing so that other people who think like me will pick it up and I can share something I love with other people who love it.Well, that and to frustrate my own beta-readers who know I do this and demand to know what I’m giggling about. :o)

If I am critiquing, I love to do it in layers if I have time. I never really thought about it until I read your post but I suppose I do read in layers as well. Typically I’ll approach the book from an overall plot and entertainment level but usually tend to get caught up in character development if it is seriously lacking. But if I enjoy the book to read it through a second time, I usually do it much more slowly and relish a deeper meaning or the flow of words. Cool post!

Hmmm, this is actually the first time I’ve heard of this, so I don’t have a clue if I do it. I’m not very analytical. Interesting post. 🙂

I have to admit that sometimes I read in layers. If, for example, I expect nothing deep in the book, I’m only looking for plot. But, if I’m expecting a complicated masterpiece, I’ll be on the look out for symbolism, archetypes, etc.Thanks. This gave me a whole new perspective editing. One of my betas kept giving me the same note, “yeah, the plot works.” Eventually, she told me that she edits in layers. My impatient side scowled. I think I understand better now. I guess this post just showed the benefits of doing that.

scott g.f. bailey

I try to read in layers, because I want there to be layers in what I’m reading. Sometimes I might see things that aren’t there, and I’m sure sometimes I don’t see things that are there. Right now I’m reading a Nabokov and I’m aware that he’s doing stuff I can’t quite figure out yet. But Nabokov does that to his reader deliberately, which is part of the fun of his books: every one is a kind of mystery, with hidden jokes and puns (like those Just_Me mentions; there’s a really funny Hamlet joke in an early chapter).The thing about critiquing someone’s work is that several things are going on at once:1) We usually are looking for the problems in what we are critiquing, so aren’t reading like a normal reader, who will tend to accept what we write at face value.2) We usually are writing something on our own while we’re critiquing someone else’s work, so we’re going to read that through the lens of whatever problems we’re trying to solve in our own work, so our feedback tends to be limited and sometimes off-the-mark.3) We usually give comments about the most glaring problems we see, whose causes aren’t necessarily evident. What might seem like weak dialog might actually be weak characters, for example. But we’ll say “this dialog is weak.”All of which is why we’re wise to gather criticism from a wide group of readers.Back to layers: one of the best comments I ever got about a short story I’d written was “I was aware that there were more things going on than appeared on the surface of the story.”

Robin of My Two Blessings

Whoops. I screwed up. Here goes:Great post as usual Lady Glam. Always makes me think. I’m like Davin in that sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Depends on if someone has pointed out something to look for in the story. Then I’ll try to sift through the layers as I read.I always do when reading a book for a class. When I read for enjoyment (ie twaddle) I just read and don’t try to sift through all the layers.Off to read and absorb your post about Working In Layers. I swear you are my muse – everything you’ve talked about lately has been apropos to what I’m writing. Thanks!

I tend to critique in layers. With all the lit classes I’ve taken, I’m trained to see more than just the storyline and generally I like to do that, but sometimes it is fun to read something that is not very deep. I think we have to be sure that our story works when perceived at the different levels. That’s what the editing process is about–getting all the levels to flow smoothly. I agree with scott that it is vital to get multiple betas. Everyone has their own projects circling around in their heads and different opinions. Sometimes I think they feel you should write like them or what they write or whatever. We just have to take what they give us and see if we agree. (Trying to be open minded and not offended.) There were several crits that I’ve gotten that I just had to step back and take a deep breath and not be offended that the critter ripped into my work. When I made myself be objective, I could see that some of the points were valid and some weren’t. Dave’s idea is great! Talk about breaking down the layers and getting your crits in layers.

I think you’d make a better teacher than the one I had online for my memoir class. I’m learning to become better at critiquing and the only way I know how is to look at each aspect individually, such as: Characters, plot, point of view, description, dialogue,setting, pacing, voice, style and theme. I follow these guidelines. Thanks for helping us. great post as always.

Anette J Kres

I don’t like to read in layers, but I definately edit in layers. It gives me more focus. To try to do it all at once would be insanity.Like trying to sand a door by doing one square foot at a time to prefection. It would be long and grueling and when you got done, the sections of the door wouldn’t blend with each other. It wouldn’t look like once piece but a hodgepodge. Sanding it all (novel) with increasingly fine grain sandpaper is the way to go.

your sassy reporter

tnx for following my blogs.however, I am moving them to one site at to see you there!Thanks!

Justus M. Bowman

"Then I took a step back and made myself breathe normally."I've been there. Too many times I felt like my readers would read page one then cry, "Why don't I know everything?!" It freakin' annoyed me!! $*&%(#)@#Oh, to answer your question: I don't read in layers unless the work forces me to read in layers. Plenty of books are rather shallow, so who cares to reread them? But if a book gets me thinking I've missed something, or a lot of somethings, sometimes I'll open it again (and sometimes again).

Carrie Harris

I suppose I do, only I never thought about it that way. My first read through is always about surface issues: things that as a reader make me go: HUH? Then I do basic grammar and punctuation. And then I get down to the structure and pacing, larger issues like that. Not exactly what you’re talking about, but it’s basically the same principle.

Depends on my energy levels. When I’m really tired, the brain fog makes it difficult to concentrate and sift through the layers. Stories with layers are my favorite kind. :)Do I critique in layers? Depends. Because it’s a lengthy process, if there is a time constraint, I’m usually not able to go through and read the story more than once. But I try to look at the whole picture while I crit. When I edit my own work, I usually do everything at once. The story still goes through a couple of drafts, but each time I go through it trying to look at it as a reader would. Readers and writers see and read things differently, and it’s the readers I’m aiming for. 🙂 My brain just seems to be hardwired to do it all at once, rather than going through with a specific layer in mind.Glam–just remember that red is a great color. Don’t think of blood, think of roses. 😉

I revise my own stuff in layers, and find critiquing the same way the best (when time allows – which it doesn’t all the time).But layers are good.Did you see Shrek.Ogres are like onions. They have layers 🙂


I definitely get more of the symbolism or intricacies of the plot when I read something a second time. But it’s rare to have the time to read something twice. Usually what ends up happening is I read it once and then go back a reread some parts that come to my mind after finishing.

Amber Lynn Argyle

This got me thinking about people who look for layers in books that don’t necessarily have them. For instance, some people get all worked up over Bella in Twilight. They think SM has an underlying layer about women relying on men, getting married and having babies, etc. I don’t think SM meant it that way. She doesn’t write in layers and the people that read that way automatically looked for things that weren’t there.

For me it depends on the book. I read for entertainment, but it is entertaining to wax philosophical on character motivations and potential hidden meanings.I don’t try to make something out of nothing, or strive to find layers that are not apparent.When Oprah interviewed Cormac McCarthy about THE ROAD, she asked him if there was a deeper meaning to the book. He said no, it’s just about the man and his son and their journey. Sometimes even Pulitzer prize winning literature is really about a simple story…

Thank you for this post which will be very helpful to me. I suppose I do read in layers but had never actually labeled it as such. I have so much to learn!

I’m also a layer girl. I write, read, and critique in layers. For the writing part, I’m now to the point where I don’t want to put my novel up for critique until I’ve finished two or three drafts, because it takes that many to get all my layers in. And if I give it out for critique, my critiquers are going to tell me stuff that I already know…so there’s no point. :)When I read, I want to sink some serious teeth in a story. I want there to be layer after layer after layer, and I want them all to blend seamlessly. I don’t tend to enjoy books with one or few layers. Seems boring to me. :)When I critique in layers, it all depends on the writer. I look at where the writer currently is regarding level of craft and number of drafts, then critique accordingly. If the plot needs major work, I’m going to focus on that. If the characters are shallow, I’ll focus mainly on that. But I rarely lay everything on the writer at once, unless I know they can handle it. Besides, I figure I’ll critique it again at some point, and I can say the rest then. :)Great topic. 🙂

Sara Tribble

Nice post! This is interesting and I must say I hardly read in layers unless needed. Like I read a friends book and I read it over wanting to know the story but also caught a few things that needed work.However now I will be going back for an in depth critique and editing and after seeing the whole picture I think going back is going to be easier to spot things that don’t flow.

Davin:It depends on the book for me, as well. Although I always try for layers when I’m critiquing. But you’re right, it’s important not to miss out on layers that might be there! I guess that’s it’s great we can read again. Traci:I am trained to, as well. Sometimes it’s just plain annoying!Dave:EXCELLENT comment! Thank you so much for delving into specifics. I loved your example. I think that reading and working and critiquing in layers is essentially dealing with craft. Excellent point!Jody:Thanks for the mention! I’m glad this will help with your critiquing. :DBeth:Your method sounds great, and similar to what I do! It seems to work well. I am much more critical of pre-published works as well, because, well, they’re pre-published. :DLiana:You know I love all that hidden stuff!Cindy:Well, you certainly picked up on some great character stuff in Monarch. And I thank you! That is going to make a huge difference in my edits.Jessica:It pays off to to try and be analytical with critiques, I think. It can be hard to learn, but is great for the process of reading, critiquing, and writing. How do you critique? I’m sure there are other great ways than what I’ve suggested. :DDominique:It can be frustrating, yes! Especially if you didn’t realize that the writer didn’t critique in layers. Knowing this has helped me A LOT with interpreting critiques.Scott:Wow, that IS a great comment for your story. I would love to receive something like that. :DNice comment, thank you. Your points are dead on! I’ll have to keep those in mind as I’m critiquing work.Robin:Ack! Your muse? My, my. Um… I hope I don’t let you down in the future. LOL. I am glad I can help. I am like Davin, as well, in that it depends on the book and also what I’ve heard about it.Lois:Thank you for your comment! Yes, it really is about being trained. I sure had it hammered into my head how to read in multiple layers all the time. But if a book grabs me up front as something that’s mostly entertainment, I usually try and block out that “layer” reading. Or try to…Scott had a great point, absolutely! Multiple betas are essential, I think.Sonia:You’re welcome, thank you! A better teacher? *gulp* Well, I’m glad I could teach you something. How did that class go, anyway? Are you finished with it?Anette:Oh, great analogy!!! The thing is, I’ve driven myself nuts trying to critique that way. And it drove the writer nuts, too. So much better to step back and take it layer by layer. If I only have time for one or two layers, I’m sure to let the writer know.Sassy Reporter:Excellent. Thank you!Justus:Yep. Those are my favorite types of books. Probably why I like all the classics so much!Carrie:It is pretty much what I’m talking about, so you’re right, and you sounds like a great critiquer!Dani:There’s nothing wrong with doing it all at once! I wish I could do it effectively. :DIs your comment about red referring to Monarch? I’m confused. LOL.PJ:The Shrek comment had to come up, LOL! Yes, I love onions, too. Layers are just great!Candice:Oh, that’s a great idea! I’ll be sure to do that when I don’t have time. It would be great to write down the parts I want to revisit, or if they stick out later when I’m done I’ll go back. Thanks!Amber:Oh! Excellent point! I read Twilight and it drove me NUTS trying to see layers that weren’t there. It felt so shallow – which is why I like classics more than anything. They always have at least a few layers I can sink my teeth into!Rick:I will remember that forever about The Road! I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sure I’ll manage to see layers somewhere from what I’ve heard about it, even if he didn’t intend them. I have to admit that a lot times I do try and find things that aren’t there. I probably shouldn’t, but it’s just so ingrained!Jungle Mom:Yeah, I have a lot to learn, too. I still can’t get over your 75 foot Internet tower!Tabitha:Oh, it certainly does make a difference if you know what draft the writer is on! That way you’ll know what to look for. I made sure to let my beta readers know that my novel was a 2nd-ish draft and that it did still have issues. I just couldn’t revise or edit anymore since I had hit a wall. I needed feedback and now I’m getting it. It’s great, but painful. 😀

Sara:Thank you for visiting! Yes, I find that the process of layers can be really time consuming, but pays off in the end, for both the writer and the reader. Good luck!

Kate Karyus Quinn

I don’t know if when casually reading I do so in layers. I think in really good books it should be difficult when you’re reading and in the story to pull apart the layers easily, because at that point it should all be seamless and invisible. If I’m not enjoying something though, I tend to ask myself what isn’t working, and find that layer that isn’t in harmony with the rest.

Yes, my Gotham Writers Class ended yesterday after 10 weeks. I might take a UCLA one next. Not sure yet.

As an avid reader, and in no way a writer, I’d like to think that I read in layers. I’m always looking for that subtle foreshadowing or the deeper symbolism within the story, all while enjoying the suspense, action, or momentum of it all. The one thing that does bug me about reading though, is when something is hard to read or comprehend just because of poor editing or lack of a simple spell check… ACK!

Heh. Yes. Just remember that red is a nice color. O:)

i defintely read and critique in layers. i agree though, it helps for critiquing purposes if you know ahead of time which draft you’re on.since i read in layers i have noticed that it takes me longer to read something — certain voices, words, imagery catcy my eye, and then i re-read or think about their content and symbolism to the piece.interesting viewpoints here.

Nora MacFarlane

I nominated you for an award. Love your blog!

Robert A Meacham

I too like to read in layers. The better the book , the deeper I go, like Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth.”I was astonished with her ability to show a male’s perspective throuhout the book.One more thing; I also listen in layers, to music, and people as they speak.I guess I am always looking for that gateway to literary genius.

Thanks for the great post! I’m still working on my skeleton in my new WIP. I’m going to re-read your post in depth now, perhaps print it out!

Nice post! When I’m critiquing, I tend to at least read through twice. The first time I want to get plot if it’s genre, or the underlying meaning/theme if it’s literary. The second read, I will make suggests on how to many a theme clearer. Also, I tend to line edits and then a summary of my thoughts.

I am an emotional reader. I love emotion in a story and I love characters. So I immediately attach myself to them and if they do something uncharacteristic it is like a blinking red light. It’s often times easier for me to see this when I read then when I write because I know who and what my characters intentions are and sometimes I’m not the best at putting them into my story. That’s why I love my beta readers.

Oh, my! How do you put together such great posts and do all the other great stuff you do? You are incredible…and a great resource, too!

Kate:Yes, it often is harder in well-written books because it is seamless, but that’s what I was taught to see as an English major. Sometimes it takes the pure enjoyment out of reading if I’m too caught up in seeing past that seamlessness!Meghan:I can think of a few examples of that in some published works I’ve read, but I’ll keep my mouth shut, LOL.Suz:You know, I think you’ve hit on the reason why I’m so blasted slow at reading. Hehe. It’s me looking for all those layers!Nora:Thank you so much!Robert:Beautifully said! I listen to music in layers, too. I never thought of it that way – how wonderful! Never thought of the voices, either… now I’m going to be listening all day!T. Anne:I printed out your show don’t tell list. I’ve been using it! Hope my posts can help you, too. :DRena:You sound like a great critiquer!Kasie:I do the same thing, but I have so much trouble spotting the inconsistences in my own work, like you. Aren’t beta readers the best?!Anita:Thanks! You have great posts, too, you know. All those wonderful interviews!

Hahaha, I think we’ve all heard that rant… and I know what you’re talking bout… it bugged me, but I forced myself to turn a blind eye after a while so I could enjoy the rest.

Excellent post. It depends what I’m reading and also my frame of mind as to whether I just read for plot and characters or whether I see other layers.As you know I’m just starting out on both the writing and critiquing so this gave me lots to think about.

I must say I primarily read for entertainment. And maybe the entertainment layer is thin and brittle, but it is usually what hooks me. Great post. I love the metaphor!

Meghan:Enjoyment is the key! Alexa:Glad I could help! Can’t wait to get on chat with you again. :DJessie:It’s what hooks me a lot of the time too. I think the entertainment layer is VERY important!

Oh, absolutely! Just like you suggested, I usually read a book the first time (layer) for plot. Then if it interested me enough I’ll read again (2nd layer), this time more for symbolism. Then if I read it enough I’ll get to noticing nitpicks like grammar and punctuation.It’s actually harder to read WIP. Then I tend to focus more on the nitpicks and symbolism, editing like I would for a final draft of a school assignment.Knowing what layer is needing attention would be a great tool to give better feedback as a Beta reader! It would definitely help if on the current WIP up for review it is clear from the onset what layer(s)/feedback is wanted. Helping give focus over abstract to the peer group is a great idea, Michelle!

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