Writing is a conversation. Whether you anticipate your audience to be a friend, a panel of scientists, a room full of legislators, the owner of a pizza shop, the divine universe, or oneself, to write is to put forth one’s wish to be heard. By extension, to read is to be in the position of the listener. Just as we learn to speak and to express complicated ideas by listening to others, so we learn to write by learning first how to read.
There are many ways to read, depending on your aims. When your wish is to respond to or build upon an existing conversation, and especially when you wish to respond in writing, then close and careful reading is required. Here is a six-step strategy for close reading and developing a clear and nuanced understanding of a text. While conversations held through films, other art forms, or current events may all be read as texts, the following approach applies best to written texts.
- Start by reading the text all the way through once. Circle the words, sentences, and paragraphs that stand out to you most.
- Re-read the introduction, and especially the first and second paragraphs, several times. Many questions can be asked at this stage: What can I draw from this first section alone? What is its tone or mood? What do I anticipate the piece to be about? To whom is this piece directed?
- Re-read the conclusion or last few paragraphs. Ask yourself, how far did the piece travel? Did it repeat what was stated in the beginning or did the author report something new and unexpected?
- Highlight sentences that you think best convey the text’s central concern or thesis. Sometimes a text’s argument is a single sentence; sometimes, it’s a whole paragraph.
- Once you’ve identified the thesis, translate it into your own words. This step is crucial to forming your own understanding of the material at hand.
- Spend time deciphering how the thesis works. How are the paragraphs organized? What are the topic sentences and transitional moments? What evidence does the author use to substantiate their claims or show that their thesis is important? Where is the author most, or least, convincing?
This strategy can be tailored to different types of texts. A scientific and scholarly text will usually state its main argument clearly, in which case the task of close reading is one of identifying how the author proves their argument via the text’s structure, sources, and scope. A creative nonfiction piece may have a less decipherable thesis and it may even appear toward the piece’s end. Reading fiction will demand yet another configuration of this strategy. It is helpful to become familiar with the vocabulary for talking about fictional works. Terms such as narrator, style, tone, syntax, detail, background, scene, summary, and dialogue can help describe how fictional texts are crafted. (When applied to fiction, the word “story” can be substituted for “thesis” in the steps above.)
Overall, it is important to ask yourself questions as you read through a text. This process slows you down and focuses your attention. By searching the text for answers to one’s own questions, the reader literally engages the text in conversation. If you get the chance, I encourage you to go through the above steps with others to gather more perspectives and to build your own understanding of a text. Practicing these strategies repeatedly trains you to become an observant and critical reader. Over time, the ability to break down the craft of other authors will help you imagine the perspectives of your readers and give you greater command over your own writing craft.