Teaching Multilingual Writers
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Close Reading: Methods for Analyzing Literary Texts
Analyzing literary texts—and writing interesting papers about them—begins with the practice of close reading. For our purposes, close reading is a method of slow, careful reading in which you pay attention to the formal features of a text—features like its language, structure, and rhetoric—in order to better understand and interpret individual moments and the work as a whole. In other words, when we read closely, we focus primarily on this question: how does form inform or relate to content, or, how does what a text say relate to how it is being said?
While close reading means different things for different disciplines, the kind of attentive, methodical reading practiced in English departments can be carried over to the reading of any text—and by text, we mean any variety of literary or non-literary objects that can be read or interpreted. The reading stage of the writing process is one of the most important, as it is here that you will gather the evidence which you will later organize in written form in a way that makes your reading, your interpretation of a particular text—what it does, and how it does it—obvious and exciting to your readers.
Close reading is and ought to be a very personal process. As such, the following are simply guidelines to kick-start your own habits of close reading and to get you thinking about the kinds of questions that literary critics ask when approaching texts.
- Read through the passage and make note of what’s going on. Who is speaking, and to whom? When does this passage occur in the text? Answering these questions will help you when it comes time to summarize the passage in a written analysis.
- Rephrase what is being said in your own words (in modern English, if applicable).
- Determine the form of the passage. Is it verse (poetry) or prose? If verse, what kind is it? Are the lines shorter or longer? Can you identify the meter.
- If verse, mark the rhyme scheme, if any. If prose, proceed to Step 5.
For example, given the following lines, we would mark it like this:
The raging rocks A
And shivering shocks A
Shall break the locks A
Of prison gates; B
And Phibbus’ car C
Shall shine from far, C
And make and mar C
The foolish Fates. B
Consider the structure of the text as a whole. Are all the parts of the text written in a single form, or does it switch between verse and prose, or different kinds of verse? When do these switches occur, and why? If the text is in verse, is it organized into stanzas, and how many?
Identify any special uses of language. Are there any rhymes, repeated words or sounds? What kinds of symbols or imagery are deployed? How would you describe the speaker’s tone? (e.g. Serious? Ironic? Instructive? Comedic?) Does he/she consistently use a particular vocabulary or certain kinds of words?) Circle, underline, highlight, annotate, write in the margins!
Think about the theme(s) and/or ambiguities conveyed in the passage. Do these appear elsewhere in the text? If so, in what context(s)? How is the way such theme(s) is/are presented here different from those other contexts?
Finally, review all of your annotations, notes, and marginalia. Look for patterns and start trying to make connections between the formal patterns you recognize and the themes or ambiguities you noticed. In other words, think about how the form relates to the content. Think about any instabilities, contradictions, surprises, or “aha!” moments that occur as you work through these connections and relationships.
Nota Bene: Much poetry (and prose) is meant to be read aloud, so always try reciting the passage aloud when you close read…you might just hear something interesting that you would miss otherwise!
Grace Catherine Greiner
From Reading Closely to Writing the Close Reading Essay: Tips for Organizing Textual Evidence and ‘Making’ a Thesis
So you’ve picked a passage which you find interesting, surprising, confusing, peculiar, frustrating, ambiguous, provocative, suggestive—in short, in some way deserving of a second read. You’ve gone back and close-read the passage, annotating and taking notes on its formal features. What you should have now is a (possibly messy-looking) piece of text intermingled with your own comments and observations. Maybe you’ve also started to puzzle out how those formal features might relate to the passage’s content, and what that relationship might tell you about the thing that made you reread the passage in the first place. (See the final step on the “Close Reading” handout.)
So what next? How, in other words, should you move from having this collection of evidence to interpreting the text in a clear and compelling written analysis?
Here are a few ways you might proceed:
Organize your evidence into a few clearly defined categories. One way to do this is to group all of your observations into different formal categories (e.g. “Language,” “Structure,” “Rhetoric”). Different formal features can fall into more than one of these categories, and your categories might change depending on the form or genre of the text you’re writing about; if you’re writing about poetry, for example, “Meter” or “Rhyme” might merit their own separate categories, or fall under “Structure” and “Language” or “Rhetoric, respectively. Another way to do this is to organize your observations chronologically (along the text’s linear progression). If there’s another way to start organizing that makes sense to you, do that (maybe there are a set of themes or questions that different formal elements seem to gesture at collectively). You can think about this step as a kind of quasi-outline. Move the evidence around, try different category labels: this is all part of the interpretative act!
AND / OR
Do a free write. You’ve read and reread (and re-reread) the text, and probably have a “hunch” or two about what the text is doing, and how it is doing it. Put pen to paper and record these initial thoughts. Go for free-flowing, continuous prose; don’t worry about citations, word choice, or style at this point. Just generate as much raw material from your preliminary analysis as you can.
Stake a claim (or three). Look at your groupings of evidence or your prose (if you did a free-write). Are there any patterns emerging? Any ways that different parts of the text connect to one another formally? Anything surprising? What do your different collections of evidence tell you about the text that individually they might not? Try to make a claim about each set of evidence.
Make a *tentative* thesis that accounts for all (or most) of these claims. Note that this step is not “have a thesis.” Going into the writing process already having a thesis is sometimes helpful, but oftentimes, can lead you into the trap of trying to force your evidence to fit that prescripted thesis. The most interesting theses often emerge while you are writing; after all, it’s usually only once you start writing that you figure out what it is you’re really trying to say. Better to go in with a flexible idea of what your thesis might be than to retrofit your evidence to the thesis: not only will this save you from writing a dull or unconvincing paper, it will also make the process of writing more of an exploration—which is precisely what it is meant to be.
Grace Catherine Greiner