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HOW I DEFINE CLOSE READING

Brown 1

One skill we should be practicing and developing in this course is called close reading. You are being
asked to begin from a very small amount of textual information, to scrutinize it slowly, and to extrapolate from it
all the meaning you can. This will be difficult at first, but you will improve with practice. For our purposes, a
close reading is a type of short paper you will write. This kind of paper will be the evidence, and the result, of
your careful re-reading of short portion of a literary text. This re-reading paper should be hyper-attentive to the
language-choices of the author, and it will try to explain what these choices mean and why they might have been
made.
In your close reading, you do not need to give historical context. The exception to this is when a general
historical fact is directly relevant to a specific language-choice that you can point out in the passage you are
close-reading. You should avoid speculation of any form, unless it is grounded in a specific language-choice you
can point out. Theoretical comments drawn from secondary literature should be minimal, and always tied
directly to the specific wording in your passage.
For short papers like this, its usually best to omit a classic opening paragraph altogether, since typical
opening paragraphs contain generalized information and dont do the work of close reading. But you do need to
put an evidence-based interpretative statement, or thesis, at the beginning of your paper in order to orient your
entire discussion. It should be about the theme, plot, style, setting, verse form, characterization, aesthetic, or
some other literary element in the text. It does not have to address the meaning of the work as a whole. The
thesis should be composed after youve done the majority of your analysis, but it should be placed at the
beginning of the paper. It should be concretely and directly supported by the language-choices you discuss;
every sentence of your papers analysis and interpretation should relate to it.
In such a paper, you might analyze a certain passage and then begin your paper by writing something
like this: Beowulf is not only a poem about a heros battles; a comparison of the poets account of Hrothgars
actions at lines 67-73 with Wiglafs rebuke in lines 2884-90 shows that it is also about proper land-management
in an early pagan society. Your close reading would then try to support this statement by carefully explaining
your analysis of the passage in terms of what its specific details of language can tell us about land-management.
The process of close reading can be broken down into several steps:
1) Read the entire assignment.
2) Choose a passage or two from the text, about the size of a paragraph (no longer than a page).
3) Re-read this passage AT LEAST three times, for the purpose of:
a) gathering information
b) making an analysis
c) interpreting the results of your analysis
4) Write up the results of your interpretation (omitting much of your written work on a and b) in clear,
polished prose with your thesis statement at (or near) the beginning.
Some further explanation of steps a, b, and c:
Information: Start by making sure you understand the literal meaning of all the words and sentences in the
passage straighten out difficult syntax, and look up all unknown vocabulary. Then, write down what
information the passage gives you (only the information thats actually contained in the words of the passage).
Things like: What time of day is it? Where is the setting? What characters are there? What are their names? their
relationships? What sort of activity are they engaged in? Who is speaking? Not all of this information will be
given, of course. (Note that an absence of information is still a kind of information.) This is information that you
need to consider when writing the version of the paper you will turn in, but mere information (plot summary)
should be avoided as much as possible of your final draft.
Analysis: This is where we try to noticewithout yet trying to interpret!all the choices made by the writer in
composing the passage, or as many as we can. What can we say about the way the information is (or is not)
given? Try noting down some analytical comments or questions about figurative language, word-patterns, style,
order, context, chronology, ambiguity, word-choice, etc. Wow, this sentence is 14 lines long! is an analytical
comment. Why does the writer keep repeating the word white? is an analytical question. Why does the verb
come at the end of the sentence? is another. Here are some more examples:

HOW I DEFINE CLOSE READING

Brown 2

The writer rhymes the word tree with free.


The writer chose the word perambulate instead of plain old walk.
Only one character seems to do all the talking.
The passage seems to be looking through the eyes of a minor character, instead of the main character,
like you would expect.
The writer uses a lot of gerunds in this passage.
All of these are just observations weve written nothing about what they mean yet. We are not reading
between the lineswe are reading what is actually in the lines. Once weve done this step, we have gathered
our data, and next we try to draw conclusions from it. You must include clear indications of your analytical
observations within the body of your paper.
Interpretation: This is the step where we try to explain the significance of the data weve gathered. What light do
these choices shed on the passage, and on the work as a whole? For example, we can talk about why the writer
might have chosen to repeat a certain word several times in the same passage. (The word must have some
special significance in this context; what is it? Is the poet suggesting some similarity between two ideas by
rhyming the words that refer to them? What is she getting at? Where does our passage stand in relation to the
rest of the work?)
At first you will have several unrelated analytical comments; but by relating them together in a pattern with
interpretative comments, you will build toward a thesis about the passage. Your thesis does not need to say
something definitive about the work as a whole, or try to explain everything in it. It is better to explain one
specific thing well, with clear supporting evidence.
Your analysis and interpretation should constitute most of the body of your paper. Your interpreting sentences
should be clearly explaining the significance of your analytical observations; both should be clearly spelled out
for the reader. Your thesis should aim to try to explain why the author made the choices he (or she) did when
composing the passage not just explain what it is about.
Other Guidelines:
Your first paragraph should include your thesis at or near the beginning.
Its often a good idea to consider your thesis as the answer to a question that is raised by the passage.
Dont simply type an entire passage at the beginning of your paper. Early on (either before, during, or
after the thesis), indicate to the reader approximately where in the overall work it appears. Give page
numbers if line numbers are unavailable. If you are writing for an oral presentation, it is important to
read all quotes aloud and give the line numbers (or page numbers) so your audience can follow along.
When writing, quote the exact words of the passage frequently when discussing its language choices
(this may seem strange at first, but you almost cant quote it too much).
Do not do additional scholarly research when writing close-reading papers.
Do make maximum use of a good historical dictionary. Thinking about word connotations and
multiple meanings is extremely important in close reading. But figuring these out can be difficult with
older poetry that uses words we dont normally use today, or that uses words in unusual or archaic
senses. In these cases, use the dictionary to work out what the range of possible meanings might be. For
all literature, the Oxford English Dictionary is extremely useful. For Middle English works, use the
Middle English Dictionary as well. Both are available online (links are on Blackboard under Modules).
These are virtually the only two dictionaries you should be unafraid to cite directly in your papers.