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Close Reading a Text and Avoiding Pitfalls

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Also see the OWL handout on Writing about Literature and the OWL handout on Literary Terms.

Writing about a story or novel can be difficult because fiction is generally very complex and usually includes several points or themes. To discover these interwoven meanings, you must read the work closely. Below are three techniques for reading fiction actively and critically. Close reading takes more time than quick, superficial reading, but doing a close reading will save you from a lot of frustration and anxiety when you begin to develop your thesis.

Close Reading a Text

Use these "tracking" methods to yield a richer understanding of the text and lay a solid ground work for your thesis.

  1. Use a highlighter, but only after you've read for comprehension. The point of highlighting at this stage is to note key passages, phrases, turning points in the story.

    Highlighting too much
    Highlighting without notes in the margins

  2. Write marginal notes in the text.

    These should be questions, comments, dialogue with the text itself.

    A paragraph from Doris Lessing's short story "A Woman on a Roof" serves as an example:

    The second paragraph could have a note from the reader like this:

    Marginal Notes Text

    Why is the man annoyed by the sunbather? Is Lessing commenting on sexist attitudes?

    Then they saw her, between chimneys, about fifty yards away. She lay face down on a brown blanket. They could see the top part of her: black hair, aflushed solid back, arms spread out.

    "She's stark naked," said Stanley, sounding annoyed.

  3. Keep a notebook for freewrite summaries and response entries.

    Write quickly after your reading: ask questions, attempt answers and make comments about whatever catches your attention. A good question to begin with when writing response entries is "What point does the author seem to be making?"

  4. Step back.

    After close reading and annotating, can you now make a statement about the story's meaning? Is the author commenting on a certain type of person or situation? What is that comment?

Avoiding Pitfalls

These four common assumptions about writing about fiction interfere with rather than help the writer. Learn to avoid them.

  1. Plot Summary Syndrome

    Assumes that the main task is simply recalling what happened in detail. Plot summary is just one of the requirements of writing about fiction, not the intended goal.

  2. Right Answer Roulette

    Assumes that writing about fiction is a "no win" game in which the student writer is forced to try to guess the RIGHT ANSWER that only the professor knows.

  3. The "Everything is Subjective" Shuffle

    Assumes that ANY interpretation of any literary piece is purely whimsy or personal taste. It ignores the necessity of testing each part of an interpretation against the whole text, as well as the need to validate each idea by reference to specifics from the text or quotations and discussion from the text.

  4. The "How Can You Write 500 Words About One Short Story?" Blues

    Assumes that writing the paper is only a way of stating the answer rather than an opportunity to explore an idea or explain what your own ideas are and why you have them. This sometimes leads to "padding," repeating the same idea in different words or worse, indiscriminate "expert" quoting: using too many quotes or quotes that are too long with little or no discussion.