31 Jul 2010 [ Prev | Next ]

Close Reading

A close reading is a careful, thorough, sustained examination of the words that make up a text.

A close reading uses short quotations (a few words or only one word) inside sentences that make an argument about the work itself.  Your focus in a close reading is the words the author has written, rather than a narrative that describes your reactions, or a list of important incidents in the author's life, or a discussion of how things today compare to the society depicted in the story.

In a close reading, a literary work is not a magic window to look through (as if you could learn facts about real Puritans or real women or real witches by reading Hawthorne's fiction).

In a close reading, a literary work is not a magic mirror to reflect yourself (and your personal experiences, what you would do if you were the protagonist, how you think the work should have been written, what you think happened next after the work ended).

In a close reading, we look closely at the language the author chose, in order to analyze what the author has accomplished. (Forster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor is an excellent source of ideas for close readings.)

Note: Close reading is always re-reading.

  1. You will probably want to read your text once through fairly quickly, highlighting unfamiliar words or puzzling details (or marking them with sticky notes, if you're reading a library book).
  2. Go back and look more carefully at the places you marked. Did the ending explain some of the things you initially found puzzling? Do you see any recurring patterns?
  3. Once you have a sense of what you think is important, go through the text again, this time searching specifically for more of whatever caught your eye.
  4. Once you have identified the details that you find interesting, you should come up with a thesis -- a non-obvious claim, supported with direct quotations from the material you are studying. (It is not enough merely to write down a list of isolated observations, in the order they popped into your head.)

When you write a close reading, you should assume that your reader is not only familiar with the text you are examining, but has a copy of it within reach. (It is fine to type the quote you plan to use at the top of your paper, but that quote won't count in terms of page length or word count.)

A close reading does not retell the plot. Neither should a close reading profile the characters, give advice to the author, speculate on which people in the author's life inspired the literary characters, list reactions that popped into your head while you were reading, or describe how the society depicted in the story resembles or differs from your own society. A close reading does not use a literary work as a handy example to support general claims about the outside world (such as "racism is bad" or "women have come a long way").

What does a close reading do?

Think of a slow-motion replay of an important football play. As we watch the ball arcing towards the receiver's hands, and bouncing off his fingertips, does the TV announcer use that time to tell you personal stories about his own relationship to football?  As the commentator draws lines on the screen, does he speculate about how the player's childhood affected his decision to play football? 

No, but the announcer *does* focus on the angle of the player's body as it hits the ground, of how the arc of a pass or the motion of an opponent or the proximity of a teammate or the decision of a referee made the play worth a closer look. (Is there ambiguity? Controversy? A detail that only emerges upon closer scrutiny?

A literary close reading is like a slow-motion replay. It might look closely at a single paragraph, or a brief exchange of dialogue, such as Hamlet's encounter with his father's ghost, and analyze the explicit plot points and the subtle foreshadowing contained in that scene. (It would not try to re-tell the whole story of Hamlet. If you're being asked to do a close reading of a work, your instructor already expects you to have read and understood the whole work, so you won't get any exra points for demonstrating your factual knowledge of the plot.

What words did the author choose, what do they mean, and what function do they serve? In what ways are word order and grammatical structure significant? (One character might speak only a few words at a time, but grunt a lot; another may ramble.)


The imagery in this passage helps turn the tone of the poem from victimization to anger. In addition to fire images, the overall language is completely stripped down to bare ugliness. In previous lines, the sordidness has been intermixed with cheerful euphemisms: the agonizing work is an "exquisite dance" (24); the trembling hands are "white gulls" (22); the cough is "gay" (25). But in these later lines, all aesthetically pleasing terms vanish, leaving "sweet and ...blood" (85), "naked... [and]...bony children" (89), and a "skeleton body" (95). (An excerpt from a close reading of Tillie Olsen's "I Want You Women Up North to Know"

See also:

Getting an A on an English Paper

That means reading every word: it's not enough to have a vague sense of the plot. Maybe that sounds obvious, but few people pay serious attention to the words that make up every work of literature. Remember, English papers aren't about the real world; they're about representations of the world in language. Words are all we have to work with, and you have to pay attention to them. -- Jack Lynch

How to Do a Close Reading

We need more evidence, so we go back to the text--the whole essay now, not just this one passage--and look for additional clues. And as we proceed in this way, paying close attention to the evidence, asking questions, formulating interpretations, we engage in a process that is central to essay writing and to the whole academic enterprise: in other words, we reason toward our own ideas. --Patricia Kain


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