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Write a Close Reading

Choose a passage

If you have not been assigned a passage or poem, then you must select a text and a specific passage.

Limit your selection to a paragraph or two at the most. In some cases, a sentence or two (or a few lines, if you are dealing with a poem) will be sufficient. Keep in mind that literature (and especially poetry) can be very dense. You will be surprised at how much you can glean from a short section – and how easily you can be overwhelmed by selecting a section that is too long.

Look for unusual or repetitive images or themes and passages with rich imagery or language.

Also pay particular attention to passages that relate to central characters or definitions of keywords; you may decide to focus on one section and how it helps you understand a character, relationship, issue, or idea.

Step 1: Read the passage.

Take notes as you read. Mark anything that seems relevant or interesting to you – even if you are unsure why a particular section of the text stands out.

Ask yourself: HOW is language and/or argument being used? Take notes about your observations of the passage, even if these observations seem simplistic or self-evident. Also pay attention to how language use changes over the course of your passage. For example, if the same word appears at the beginning and end, does it mean different things in both places? Does the author's tone or attitude change?

After you have read the entire text, you can return to these sections to look for repeated patterns, themes, or words. Often, a close reading will focus on one example of a theme or pattern to study the significance of this theme or pattern more in depth.

Step 2: Analyze the passage.

Begin by writing answers to some of the following questions, focusing on the kinds of rhetorical and literary devices you see in the passage.

Diction: 

  • What words are being used here? 
  • Are any words repeated in this passage? 
  • What adjectives are used? What nouns do they describe?  How do they alter your understanding of these nouns? 
  • Are any two (or more) words used in this passage connected in some way?

If any words are unfamiliar, look them up. If you are analyzing an older text, keep in mind that words may mean different things at different points in history—so be sure to look up any words that may be familiar but used in an unfamiliar way. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) will provide you with definitions as well as histories of word use.

Whether you are looking at an historical or contemporary text, remember that words can be used in different ways. Ask yourself: Are any words being used in unusual ways? Are any words referring to something more than what is simply stated? Are any two (or more) words in the passage connected in some way?

Narrative Voice: 

  • Who is speaking in this passage? 
  • What narrative perspective is being used in this passage? 
  • What does the narrative voice tell you?  
  • What characters does it give you access to?

Tone:

  • Is the speaker being straightforward, factual, open?
  • Is he or she taking a less direct route toward his or her meaning?
  • Does the voice carry any emotion? Or is it detached from its subject?
  • Do you hear irony (what is said is different from what is meant)? If so, where?

Rhetorical and Literary devices:

  • Do you notice any figurative language, such as metaphors and similes?
  • Do you observe any imagery?
  • Is the sound of the language and sentences important (e.g., rhyme, repetition, choppy or long sentences)?
  • What is the effect of these devices and techniques? (e.g., do they add emphasis or connect key ideas?)

Step 3: Develop a descriptive thesis.

Once you have finished looking at the language in detail, you can use your observations to construct a descriptive thesis. For example, you could argue that a passage is using short, simple sentences, or that it is using irony or a combination of these things. Your descriptive thesis should attempt to summarize the observations you have made about HOW language is being used in your passage.

Remember, this is not your final thesis statement. It's just your first step to arriving at an analytical thesis.

Step 4: Construct an argument about the passage.

Now that you have some idea of HOW language is being used in your passage, you need to connect this to the larger themes of the text. In other words, you now need to address WHY language is being used in the way (or ways) you have observed.

This step is essential to a successful close reading.  It is not enough to simply make observations about language use – you must take these observations and use them to construct an argument about the passage.

Transform your descriptive thesis into an argument by asking yourself WHY language is used in this way:

  • What kinds of words are used (intellectual, elaborate, plain, or vulgar)?  Why are words being used in this way?
  • Why are sentences long or short?  Why might the author be using complicated or simple sentences?  What might this type of sentence structure suggest about what the passage is trying to convey?
  • Who is the narrator? What is the narrative voice providing these particular descriptions? Why are we given access to the consciousness of these particular characters?  Why not others? 
  • What images do you see in the passage? What might they represent? Is there a common theme?
  • Why might the tone of the passage be emotional (or detached)?
  • To what purpose might the text employ irony?
  • What effect/impact is the author trying to create?

 

Step 5: Develop an outline based on your thesis

After you have established your thesis, you’ll need to write an essay that supports this argument with examples and analysis.

For example, you might argue that in the novel Jane Eyre, Jane’s friend Helen Burns uses language and imagery to describe God in a very different way from characters who represent religious authority. To prove your argument, you must organize your essay to show examples of how Helen Burns describes God and interpret her description. You must also analyze how her description differs from the status quo in the novel and tell readers why this difference matters to our understanding of the novel.

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