Tips & Techniques

How To Read A How-To Article

Consent Educator and Intimacy Coordinator Mia Schachter (they/them) gets meta on advice columns. 
by Mia Schachter
5 Nov 2021

UPDATED: 20 Jul 2022


Through my teens, at airports and grocery store checkout lines I was a total sucker for catchy headlines about How to Give a Mindblowing Blowjob, How to Know If He’s Really Into You, and How to Make Him Want You More. With what I now understand to be mild OCD and a propensity to look for ‘the right way’ or ‘the truth,’ these articles held a promise of perfection if I could just ‘do it right.’

Cosmo was my drug of choice. In my teens, their How-To articles suggested that there was only one way to suck a dick and that all dicks are the same, which was awesome and so convenient because it meant if I read this article I would be awesome at sucking all dicks forever, right? They suggested that you could tell if your partner was cheating on you with the coveted insight that they blessed you with. How? She hides the phone from you when she texts. But what if she’s planning you a surprise party, or her friend is having a tough time and she’s consoling them, trying to give them privacy?

What these articles often lack is nuance, context, and you and me. Now when I read a How-To article, I scan it for evidence of me. 

How To Read A How-To Article: Questions To Ask

Verify the author.

Who is this person? Why are they writing this article? What are their motives? What are their qualifications? I don’t mean that in a certificates and degrees, academically elitist way; I mean who the fuck are they and do you trust their judgment? Where are they getting their information? What are their beliefs? Can you get a sense of what their Politic or Ethic is? This helps you understand the context in which the article lives.

Of course, this also requires you to know yourself. Your own belief system becomes the filter through which you sieve these articles. How coarse or fine the mesh is is up to you and your integrity.

Any article I read is an invitation by its writer into their reality, but that doesn’t mean it has to be mine as well.

Who is the intended audience?

Is this article for cis people? White people? Heterosexual people? Able-bodied people? Thin people? How-To articles are rarely intersectional in terms of who their advice is for. I’m a genderfluid, queer millennial with invisible disabilities. When I read these articles, I ask myself, “Was this written for me?” If not – and that’s often – I can take what I like and leave what I don’t. 

This brings up the universalist myth of cis, hetero, white maleness. Historically, this group has been heralded as the pinnacle of humanness that we all strive to emulate. They’ve been deemed relatable to all, as some kind of blank slate onto which all the rest of us can project our own realities. When we are shown stories of cis-hetero-white men, we are all expected to be able to see ourselves in them. This is (slowly) changing in the media. We see it in publications like Them, Teen Vogue, Salty World, and all over social media where journalism, for better or worse, has been democratized. Turns out – shocker – people can relate to more than just this one archetype. 

Who’s publishing it?

What is the overall vibe of the publication? Who is their typical audience? What is their mission, do they even have one? Does that mission align with you and yours? 

Reject binary thinking.

Is the article dividing people into categories? How many? Whenever I see two categories of people I think, “There are two kinds of people in this world: People who think there are two kinds of people in this world, and people who reject binaries.” Whenever someone has a binary standpoint (where something is either this or that), it means they don’t have a more nuanced argument. There are always more than two choices. How-To articles typically suggest that there’s one right way to do things, and that there is some Platonic, objective, universal method. This necessarily implies that there is a – or countless – wrong ways to do whatever they’re writing about. There’s shame built in there: if you don’t do it the author’s way, then you’re doing it wrong. There is no relativity, there is no subjectivity, there is no nuance. But are they speaking from their own experience or projecting their experience onto the universal ‘you?’

A major tenet of my own belief system is that there is no such thing as an objective reality. I believe that a common reality is a myth, and that there are as many realities as there are subjective experiences in this world. Any article I read is an invitation by its writer into their reality, but that doesn’t mean it has to be mine as well. There’s a certain amount of power we give to an author when we read their work. They invite us in and if we choose to accept, our reality can meet theirs in the liminal space between us. It’s important not to lose ourselves when we join them. 

How do I feel while reading it?

Check-in with your body. What is your face doing? Is your brow scrunching? Do you feel sceptical or relieved? Confused or validated?

This is a practice of checking in to attune to yourself and your emotional and embodied experience. It requires us to slow down so we can listen. Our bodies don’t speak in language, they speak in feeling. We tend to prioritize thoughts over feelings, intellect and reason over emotion, mind over body. This is a vestige of Cartesian Dualism which is Descartes’ idea that we have a mind and a body. He’s the Enlightenment era philosopher who famously said, “I think therefore I am.” He believed that not only are the mind and body separate entities, but that the mind can control the body. “Mind over matter,” essentially.

Our bodies don’t speak in language, they speak in feeling.

Culturally, we value things that can be quantifiable as evidence and proof over the more ephemeral sensations, hormones, chemicals, and intuition that we call emotions. I believe it’s irrational to ignore feelings because they are part of our experience, so when people want me to be rational instead of emotional, I think they’re being unreasonable. Our bodily sensations are a huge and often overlooked part of our lived experience, largely because of Colonialist, Patriarchal ideas that prioritize intellect, reason, and logic over feelings and emotions. These sensations help us gauge when we feel safe or in danger and when we reject them, we essentially gaslight our body and it just screams louder, often in the form of illness. Reading an article that is giving advice on how to be in the world is yet another opportunity to engage with our mind-body. 

Where am I in this equation?

Again, this part requires you to have your own Politic, Ethic, core belief, moral compass, and the like. Does this article feel aligned with you? Does it resonate with your lived experience? Everything we read, see, consume, and want is filtered through our own experience which is an amalgamation of our inherited and lived trauma, our upbringing, DNA, education, etc. Do you see yourself in this article? Where? Engaging in a process of checking in with your body while reading will help you connect to your intuition so you can take what you like and leave what you don’t.

Form an opinion.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was to have an opinion. When I was twenty-five or so, I wrote a play called Making Strangers about a breakup in real-time. The two characters were played by five rotating actors, intended to let me and the audience examine shifting power dynamics as gender, race, sexuality, and other identities changed. I met with the founder of a theatre company days later who had come to see the show. He told me that it sounded like I had something to say, but I was holding back. He was right. I had prioritized making the piece universally accessible at the expense of specificity, which I know as a consumer of art is where the deepest resonance can be. Somehow in my own work, I was struggling to apply that principle of specificity.

I grew up studying classical piano with Russian teachers, with a major emphasis on music theory. I aced my Certificate of Merit exams but had no voice of my own. I could sight-read well, and could play Chopin, Bach, Mozart, and the like. But where was I? I was not encouraged to make music at all, let alone make music I liked. Experimentation was not on the table. This approach to music either caused or affirmed (chicken or egg?) my search for ‘the right way.’ There’s some room for expression in classical music, but you’re really just supposed to play it as it’s written. My feeling was that if I could play it perfectly, that would be success and would mean I was good enough. 

I’ve now been working with a music teacher for a couple of years who frequently has me play a chord progression backwards, play the majors in minors and the minors in minor sevenths and the sevenths in a higher key, and then she asks me which I like best.

There’s so much power in that question: “Which do you prefer?”

I have to check-in, I have to ask myself how it feels, I have to form an opinion. That requires me to value my own subjective reality. I have to have a healthy relationship with my ego in order to believe that what I feel matters to anyone other than me. It’s a deep attunement to myself that allows me to feel and follow the pleasure. 

This is where I believe magic exists. The attunement with myself helps me attune to others and my surroundings. This deep listening lets us hear the messages from our body, which holds ancestral wisdom that we experience as intuition. 

So having read this How-To article, how do you feel? Do you see yourself reflected in this piece? Note the sensations in your body as you’re arriving at the end. Form an opinion. Do you feel like I’m talking to you? What of this article will you take with you, and what will you leave behind?