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Strategies for Close Reading and Critical Reflection

Close reading is a literary studies practice applicable to all kinds of cultural texts (e.g. films, novels, photographs, plays, etc.). Performing a close reading means making an interpretive argument about a text or texts, through detailed attention to and critical reflection on textual form and detail.

Examples: For a sample close reading of a dramatic text, see this scene analysis of Oedipus for English 303. For a sample close reading of visual texts, see this student blog post about war propaganda posters.

See also: How to read literary form: sample comments on student work

Strategies for close reading
Four steps for close reading
General categories for analyzing texts
Specific tips for reading analytic prose: essays, articles, and arguments
Tips for becoming more critically reflective in close reading

Four steps for close reading

1. Read and write at the same time: annotate the text
* Write on the text: what strikes you as surprising or significant, or that raises questions
* Look at not just what is written, but how it is written
* Note odd or unknown words, references, striking images, points of view, connotations, and/or associations
* Assume that everything in a given excerpt is potentially significant

2. Look for patterns, narrow the scope
* Review your notes and highlighted words or phrases
* What are possible patterns and/or connections among things you have marked?
* Note details that compare to or contrast other parts of the whole work--or to other texts (intertexts)
* Note overarching issues or themes

3. Explore, analyze, reflect
* Follow up on your notes and questions from steps 1 and 2
* Why these words, images, examples, stylistic choices, and not others? What does the text not say?
* Explore details, patterns, associations, or themes that you think are particularly interesting
* In critical works: look for problems or leaps of logic
* Relate noted details to explicit themes (i.e. those clearly evident or stated in text) and implicit themes (i.e. those abstractly evoked, or even suppressed)

4. Draw conclusions: make an argument that textual evidence and your reading can support
* Take a position on the text that the evidence you have noted can support
* Try to be as clear and specific as possible in your close reading
* Develop an insight or interpretation that is not obvious or self-evident (e.g. not a plot summary, or a lecture recap)--awaken your reader's curiosity

Steps 3 and 4 involve critical reflection:
* use evidence to question the causes or premises of an object under study
* engage with ambiguities about culture, systems, self, authority, meaning
* ask "How did this occur?", "Why?", and/or "How do I know this?"
* integrate academic learning: critically examine terms, theories, concepts, and discussions
from this and/or other courses or knowledge repertoires

General categories for analyzing texts
Subject: what is the text about? (What is its apparent "content"?)
Structure: What is the organizing principle of the text's overall form? What determines the selection and arrangement of its subject matter or narrative?
Development: how does the text develop? How do elements like setting, character, point of view, and plot establish the text's structure and advance its subject or story?
Style: What distinctive diction, images, figures, patterns, and symbols are used?
Tone: what is the text’s attitude to its subject, and/or to its audience?
Theme: what is a major theme in the text? How do the categories above develop this theme?

Specific tips for reading analytic prose: essays, articles, and arguments
* identify the main argument (the thesis)
* itemize the argument's main supporting points
* trace how the argument is organized
* tease out the argument's premises and assumptions
* interrogate the argument’s organization and premises: in framing an argument a certain way, and in basing it on certain assumptions, what other frameworks and assumptions does the article conceal or neglect?

Tips for becoming more critically reflective in close reading
* compare and contrast to similar or dissimilar texts
* seek the text's framework, theoretical basis, or supporting rationale
* consider various perspectives and alternative theories on the text
* identify contexts (e.g. historical, political, economic)
* think about causes and effects

Further references
Clark, Don. "Critical Reflection."
Kain, Patricia. "How to do a close reading."
Lye, John. "Critical reading: a guide."
Lynch, Jack. "Getting an A on an English Paper"

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Photo: "Ulysses" courtesy of Cobra Libre, used under CC 2.0 license