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Write a Close Reading

Read the assignment guidelines carefully

If you have been assigned a close reading as an assignment, circle keywords or ideas that the professor uses in the guidelines. You'll want to include these words and concepts in your answer. Next, look for these words or concepts in the text itself. Where do they appear? Does the meaning of the word differ in these different examples?

Often, the definition of concepts an author gives at the beginning of a text will develop or evolve as the text progresses. These shifts or contradictions can be a helpful starting point for analysis. Does the author have a consistent definition for a concept (this is rarely the case)? For example, if there isn't a consistent definition, does this mean that the author is trying to slip something new into the argument without actually accounting for it?

Avoid just summarizing

Assume that your reader has read and is familiar with the text that you are analyzing, the characters you are referring to, and so on. In other words, it is not necessary for you to provide extensive plot summary or character description in your close reading. This does not mean that you should avoid summary altogether, but that you should be sure to use it sparingly and only when it relates directly to your argument – and even here, keep it brief.

Tell your readers only what they need to know to recognize the importance of your passage and to understand your interpretation. A close reading should value analysis over summary.

Aim to use plot details strategically: tell readers where you are in the text/story/poem and give a brief description of context. Move as swiftly as possible to analysis—this is the most important part of your paper.

This example provides too much detail:

In the second scene of Hamlet, Hamlet gives his first soliloquy. Earlier in the scene, he was talking with his mother and uncle, the new king. He is disgusted by his mother’s behaviour and thinks it is unacceptable that she has so quickly forgotten the king (Hamlet’s father) and remarried his uncle, who has ascended to the throne. He says a beast, that wants discourse of reason,/Would have mourn'd longer’ (I.ii.203-4)…

This example is better:

Hamlet’s first soliloquy reveals his disgust for his mother’s hasty remarriage after the king’s death. He judges her harshly, declaring that ‘a beast, that wants discourse of reason, Would have mourn'd longer’ (I.ii.203-4)…

Put the argument in your own words

One of the most common pitfalls is misusing terms or using wordy structures. This often occurs when writers do not define the terms that they are using. Alternatively, a writer might use compound sentence structures in an attempt to make the point sound more academic. Both mistakes can harm the readability and credibility of your writing. Professors want to know that you understand the material—the best way to demonstrate this is by translating the ideas into your own words. Imagine you are explaining the idea to a friend. Use simple, clear language.

Another tip: be very cautious about using phrases such as "in my opinion." If you are asked for your opinion, make sure you draw on the text to show reasons for your conclusions.

Stay close to the text

Provide specific examples from the passage of literary and rhetorical devices to advance your claims about how these devices create meaning.

Remember: everything you include in your close reading should relate directly to the task of explaining what the author means. When you include examples to explain your argument, make sure they are succinct and relevant.

One good way to stay close to the text is to incorporate quotations. Things to keep in mind:

  • Use quotations sparingly and strategically, to capture key phrases or definitions.
  • Quote only as much as you absolutely need— sometimes a word or phrase is enough. If you quote more than one or two lines, your readers might a) not read it and b) question your judgment.
  • Never include a quotation without telling your reader what it means and why it matters. Integrate your quotation in the paragraph by introducing it before and responding to it after.

Example:

Mill argues that this freedom to follow "desires and impulses" is what determines character, which he calls "the stuff of which heroes are made" (57). In short, he claims that if we reject individuality, we're rejecting heroes—something no one would argue for.

If you are selecting evidence for an essay, focus on key quotations and leave yourself room to explain them in detail. Remember that a close reading should prioritize depth over breadth.

Connecting to larger themes

If you are still finding it difficult to connect your observations to larger themes of the text, try going back to

  • Your notes on the text
  • Your notes from class lectures, discussions, and seminars
  • The larger themes of the course (Often, re-reading the course outline can help to identify these themes.)
  • Published articles that focus on the text

You could also ask the following questions:

  • Are the social/political/economic conditions different now from the period during which the author was writing?
  • How might the conditions of the period have influenced the author's argument?
  • Why is this argument important?

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