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Close Reading: A step-by-step guide

Perhaps because of the contradictions I have already mentioned in an earlier blog, it is a little difficult to find any clear advice for students on how to do close reading.  There are plenty of textbooks which introduce students to generic forms, and to the kinds of interpretive questions they can use with texts - but few which explain the steps which a student might take to ask the most basic questions of the texts form.

There are some excellent blogs and websites (see here for a good example - and Dr. Allan Johnson has some terrific stuff which you can access here), but for what its worth, here is my suggestion of the steps which you might take in close reading and analysis.  This is really just a few thoughts, and I would greatly appreciate any comments or additions you might suggest - in particular about stages 1-4, which are lacking in detail.

1)    First ImpressionsRead the text, underlining or highlighting any words and phrases that strike you - anything that seems strange, surprising or important, or anything you don’t really understand.  In particular, be ready to notice anything that makes things difficult. If you are reading a poem, then you might find a point where the metre or the rhythm seems difficult.  If you are reading a play, you might find a moment where a character says something which seems slightly out of context, or a little unclear.  If you are reading a novel, you might notice the narrator digressing or disrupting the description of events - or a change in the way in which character's dialogue is presented.  Make a note of such things.  Don’t try to make sense of them at this point.  Just make a note of them, and learn how to be observant of the significant details in the text.  Any word you are unsure of, or which looks strange in the context given, look it up in a dictionary.
2)    Get the basics: Go through the text and map out its most basic features.  Who is speaking? Where is it located? When is it set? What kind of language is being used? The find some more specific details: What allusions, comparisons or references to other people/texts/times/events are made? What is the form of the text: how do the words rhyme? What language is used? How does it sound? What tone of voice is created?  Remember that as you read, whenever an impression occurs to you stop and make a note of it on the text itself. The text has created that impression somehow – although you might not know how right now.  Make a note now and you can try and work out how the text prompted that response later.
3)    Look for patterns: When you have a list of particulars you’ve noticed about the text and have looked up all words you’re not sure of, you need then try to organise these into a pattern. Put your highlighted pieces together (I often use post-it notes scattered on my desk) and see if you can trace connections between any of them.  This is going to be messy, but that’s fine – nothing distinct is likely to emerge at this stage and you are predominantly trying to focus your thinking.  An interesting method which could be applied here is drawn from the practices of discourse analysis, and involve using colour-coding schemes to highlight all those aspects of the text which seem to relate to each other.  This can be a useful way to determine patterns.
4)    Reading for meaning: Now go back to the text and read it again, keeping in mind what you have already picked out.  Now – and only now – start to ask yourself what you think the poem means or is about.  You are now interpreting the text based on a ‘close reading’ of its parts.  If you have already picked out a tone, or a mood which the text has established, now is the time to ask yourself why that tone has been set?  If there are difficult questions or issues raised, again ask yourself why? 
5)    Get to the Point:  The answers to the questions you will be asking in stage 4, will lead to you having a point of view about; a) what you think the text is doing, and b) why you think the text is doing it.  This point of view will, hopefully, be entirely your own - and if you have been scrupulous in your attention to the text it will almost certainly be valid.  Much is said about there being 'no right answers' in literary studies.  This is true, but while all answers are possible, not all answers are valid.  A valid argument is based on whether its the evidence of the text into account.  If the evidence for your point is in the text, then it is valid to argue it.  Nobody will say that your point is wrong.  But they might say it is poorly argued. So...
6)    Frame an Argument:  Your essay is where you argue your point of view.  This means that what you are trying to do is to persuade your reader that your point of view is the one they should have as well.  It is about persuasion.  To begin with then, you need to frame your point of view into a clear and succinct statement of argument - the kind of statement which might appear at the beginning of an essay introduction.  For example; "In this essay, I will be demonstrating that..."  Once you have this clear statement of argument, you can use this as a point of focus.  In other words, as you build your argument you can check that everything is clearly related to it.  If you have anything which is tangential, or not directly related to it, then it should be added to (what should be) an increasing pile of discarded material.  Like pruning a rose bush, getting rid of such material will make the end product much better.
7)   Read other critics:  Now that you know what you are arguing, you can begin to look at what other critics have argued.  Waiting until this point to look in detail at other critics is beneficial because it means that you can search much more accurately for relevant material.  If you are analysing a Shakespeare sonnet for example, then starting your literature review by typing 'Shakespeare' into your library catalogue is going to generate far too broad results.  However, if your argument is defined as 'Shakespeare destabilises metaphor and simile in order challenge reader's perceptions' then you can type 'Shakespeare; metaphor; destabilisation' and get much more focused (and more relevant) search results.  There are four main functions of using other critical opinions in your essay:
i)  To verify the validity of your argument: It is possible that after reading a few critics, you will discover that your particular point of view is one which was effectively debunked a century ago.  Unless you feel that you have the evidence to revive the argument, you are likely to discover at this point that your point of view was mistaken.  If so, then go back to the beginning of the process secure in the knowledge that you are doing the right thing in the right way.  It is both wrong, and ridiculously hard work to try and force a bad argument when the evidence is starting to stack up against it.  If reading other critics suggests that your argument is bad, then it would save time to look for another one now.
ii)  To support your argument: You should read secondary critical texts with a view to picking out anything relevant to your own argument.  If you can find anything which supports your points, then cite them in your essay.  The best way to win any argument, and to be persuasive, is to rack up the evidence in your favour.  If the text itself is your star witness, other critics can provide the weight of evidence to convince the judge (your reader).
 iii)  To correct your argument:  Where possible, you can always use secondary texts to correct or re-align your argument.  For example, you might discover that you have misinterpreted a word, or incorrectly analysed the metre of one particular line.  Secondary sources can keep your analysis accurate.
iv)   To extend your argument:  You may discover by reading secondary sources that there are essential points which you had not considered, and which you need to add into your argument.  They may even take your argument into new (more interesting) directions as they help you to understand different perspectives and dimensions of the text.

8)    Structure your Argument: Start to map out the various things you need to say in order to make your argument.  Map them out in a way which implies a logical progression - in other words, think about how each point relates to the one which comes both before it, and after it.  Remember that you are not obliged to follow the order of the text itself.  In other words, don't assume that you have to make this point first because it refers to line 1, and that point next because it refers to line 2.  What you are looking to demonstrate is an understanding of the broad scope of the text - so let the text fit your argument (not the other way around).  Outline the recurring themes which you have identified, the analysis of the text which you have already undertaken, and even at this stage remember your reader. Try to predict any questions, objections or problems they might have, and make sure you have planned to address them.  Think about any particular terms or ideas for which you will need to provide definitions (i.e. 'renaissance', 'petrarchan', etc.) and plan to include them. Remember, as well, that the best way to win an argument is to provide evidence - so check that each point you make is supported by evidence from either the text or your secondary sources.  Make sure there is a clear reason for everything you include

The only thing left is to start writing your essay.  Hopefully by this stage you will have enough clear analysis, structure and evidence to fill twice the word-count available, so be prepared to make some difficult economies.  It might be worth remembering some of the following more general advice:

  • Focus and clarity are more important than scope.  In other words, don't pack too many ideas into your writing.  Painful as it may be, cut out what you can to ensure you give each point enough time to be fully developed.
  • Avoid generalisations (particularly generic ones).  Don't refer to 'some critics' - refer to specific critics.  Don't refer to 'other texts' - refer to specific texts.  Don't refer to 'elsewhere in the text' - refer to specific passages.  In addition, it is worth avoiding terms which are broad or debatable.  For example, it would not take much reading of critical texts to demonstrate that the term 'Romanticism' is a complex and vague one - so do not refer to Wordsworth as a Romantic poet unless you have clearly (and in detail) determined the sense in which you are using the term.
  • Do not describe the text, or re-tell the story.  This is really important, because I get tired of having to make this comment in feedback.  Remember that your reader already knows what happens in the text.  You do not need to explain to me that Cordelia is Lear's daughter, or that Pamela is the story of a girl who served a nice lady but who ended up with her son who was not very nice.  Don't tell your reader what happens in the text.  Tell them what it means.
  • No matter how small your text, remember to cite secondary sources and include a bibliography.  There is only one conclusion which your reader will draw if you do not include a bibliography - 'this person has not read anything'.  You don't want them to draw that conclusion.
  • When analysing a poem, use line numbers if you want to reduce your word count by reducing the number of direct quotations.  For example, instead of saying 'he refers to eternity when he writes "When in eternal lines to time thou growest"', you could say 'he refers to eternity in line 12'.  Even better, use quotes from the text itself in small doses - do not feel obliged to quote full lines or paragraphs.  For example, 'he refers to "eternal lines" and to an "eternal Summer" (lines 12 and 9)'.
  • Remember that it is the early stages of close reading (stages 1-4 above) that determine how convincing your essay is going to be.  It is these stages which are most important - so remember to give an appropriate amount of time to them.  There are no short-cuts to simply going through the processes with meticulous and time-consuming care.  When reading an essay, it is very easy for a marker to quickly deduce just how much time you have spend reading and analysing before you start writing.

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