Executing a Close Reading of a Literary Passage

by Debbie Phillips

When studying literature, you will often be asked to complete a close reading of a passage. If you have not studied literature in the past, this may not be a familiar activity for you. However, if you plan to take many literature courses, you will be required to complete many of these close readings, so it is important that you grasp the fundamentals.

A close reading is basically a very close look at a very small section of text. It is possible to complete a close reading using only a few words out of an entire novel, if you would like. Sometimes students are given very specific passages to interpret, while in other instances you will need to find the passages on your own. Fortunately, there are a few basic guidelines that you can follow in order to successfully perform a close reading.

Read with a Pen

Keep a pen or highlighter in your hand as you read the text. Make a note of any words, phrases, punctuation, or sentence structures that stand out in any way to you. This could be a word choice that you feel is odd or significant. Make a note of any choices made by the author that you find surprising, strange or important.

Your Goal

As you scour the piece for important words or passages, you are looking for words and phrases that catch your attention because they imply something of importance either to the plot or to the character. You are also looking for repeating patterns, contradictions, or the use of irony in the text. The author has included all of these elements intentionally in order to get a message or theme across to you, the reader.

Ask Why

Once you have identified the passage or words on which you would like to focus, ask yourself why exactly the text is important. What information do you receive through just these few words? Does the choice of punctuation have any significance to the meaning? Do the words have double meanings? Is the author utilizing any metaphors or irony? It can help to read the passage aloud in order to receive the full impact of the meaning. Determine every possible way in which these few words are giving you valuable information regarding the rest of the text.

Consider the Big Picture

The final step to completing a close reading is to step back and consider how the small passage affects the text as a whole. Are there other examples of these same techniques or words used in other areas of the text? Is this one passage part of a pattern used throughout the story? Does the passage you read change your perspective of the characters or the plot? How does the passage that you studied benefit or change the text? Consider the passage as one part of a complex machine and demonstrate how that piece keeps the machinery functioning properly.

When performing a close reading, you are demonstrating that you understand why each and every word, sentence, and piece of punctuation is important to the overall structure, theme, and messages contained within a piece of literature. The author chose every word used in the piece intentionally, and it is your job to determine why.

Close readings are important when studying literature because it not only helps you learn how to read literature attentively, but you also learn to think critically about the piece and how to develop new perspectives regarding the meaning and intention of the author. There is no wrong way to conduct a close reading as long as you can back up your thoughts and feelings with evidence from the literature.

This post was written by Debbie Phillips

Debbie Phillips offers writing tips for students at PaperStarter.com.  Find starters and more on popular novels like The Glass Menagerie and more.

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