Close Reading

Before a literary scholar can begin writing about a piece of literature, one must engage in the exercise of close reading. As the term suggests, “close reading” means closely examining the words on a page in order to come up with a reading or an interpretation about the greater meaning of a work.

How does one “read closely”?

  • The first task involves dissecting a passage or phrase by analyzing literary elements that stick out. For instance, is the tone, diction, syntax, style, imagery, figurative language, theme(s), cultural/historical/religious references, rhyme, rhythm and meter, etc. significant in the passage or stanza? Take notes on whatever seems significant by writing in the margins of your text or keeping a reading journal.
  • After taking notes, the second task in close reading is looking for patterns or interruptions of patterns. Gather the evidence collected and think about how each one works together to create the work as a whole or how these elements contribute to or complicate larger issues such as theme, setting, characterization.
  • Finally, think about the purpose and the effect of these significant elements/patterns in the work as a whole. This means asking why and how: Why is an author using a particular metaphor, tone, diction, etc. and how does it affect one’s understanding of the passage? How are they all related to one another? How do they help us understand the larger work?

The steps listed above are a pre-writing exercise, designed to help you identify a potential thesis. Once you have formulated a thesis about how to read a larger work, you can use the smaller significant elements as evidence. This evidence will then need to be analyzed in order to support that thesis.