Close reading? Shouldn’t we already be reading “closely” for class? Correct! But the term “close reading” also describes a very specific type of literary inquiry in which one pays careful, prolonged attention to a small chunk of text (or art object) in order to produce an argument about that text and how it works. Close reading is the bread-and-butter of many fields in the humanities and beyond. English majors close read poems and novels, art history majors close “read” paintings and sculptures, law majors close read legal documents, history majors close read primary sources, politics majors close read policy briefs—the list goes on!
Mastering the “close reading” paper, the one often assigned as the first paper in college-level humanities courses, can greatly strengthen your scholarly and argumentative abilities. Here are some of the tips and tricks I teach my students when they are faced with doing a close reading:
1. Picking your passage
Once you receive your assignment, you’re going to want to pick the chunk of text to analyze. Pick one that’s interesting to you, one that you have many ideas—or questions!—about. In my experience, great passages are ones that use a lot of metaphor, are complex stylistically, or reveal something important about a particular character. The most important criteria, though, is that the passage is intriguing to you and that you can picture yourself thinking and writing about it for a prolonged period of time.
Great, so you have your passage! The next step is to type it up in a separate document and print it out so you can mark it up. (I like to print mine with triple-spacing so I have lots of room to make notes.)
Give your passage a read aloud: nothing helps you get the feel of a piece of writing than hearing its rhythm and flow out loud. After that, start reading and re-reading your passage, making notes on items that strike you as particularly interesting—or confusing!—within the text. These notes could refer to usages of literary devices (like alliteration or simile), unusual word choice (also called diction), or striking sentence structure (also called syntax).
As you accumulate annotations, start looking to see if any themes or patterns emerge. Does the author rely on a certain metaphor, such as imagery of storms or childbirth? Is there a sound pattern or rhythm that you notice recurring? Are there larger topics—say, gender or colonialism or illness—that you see the author working out at specific moments in the text?
Then, take different colored markers or highlighters, and assign a color to each of these “topics.” For example, red for storm imagery, blue for rhyme, orange for gender, green for religious language, etc. Highlight each thing that you have annotated with the corresponding color for the topic or pattern that it demonstrates. If some don’t fit in perfectly, that’s okay! You can always come back to them in the course of the essay—for example, moments in the text that stand out from how the text generally works can make fascinating topics for a conclusion.
Now that you have your color-coded topics, begin to think about what purpose they serve in the passage overall. Why does the author use storm imagery in this passage? That’s the question you want to answer. You’ve done the work of identifying these tropes and patterns. Now your task is to explain how they work and what they do for the author.
Oftentimes, your analysis of each color-coded topic can fit nicely into a paragraph. As you make these general observations, your essay will begin to take shape right in front of you!
4. Putting it all together
Once you have your what, your how, and your why of the passage’s idiosyncrasies, it’s time to bring it all together into a cohesive essay. This is where your overarching argument comes in. How do these patterns and topics speak to one another? What do they demonstrate within the passage? What do they reveal about the passage’s place in the larger work?
I like to have a capacious thesis for close reading essays, one that will allow me space for the nitty-gritty textual analysis and the broader argument tying everything together. And, it should be said, it’s okay if everything doesn’t fit together perfectly. Sometimes great arguments can be borne from telling us why a passage doesn’t seem to go together—usually it means the author is doing something important there!
In conclusion: close reading is an important skill for anyone to learn, no matter what discipline you’re in. It can be a lot of fun, too—think of it like you’re decoding the “puzzle” of the text. With practice and enthusiasm, you’ll be able to get up “close” and personal with any text in no time!
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.