Ever read a book and wondered how the writer did a particular technique or thought to yourself, gee, I would love to find out how to incorporate more symbolism, realism, characterization, or any other technique better into my writing? Well, you can.
The practice of close reading leads to writing better fiction. We learn to look deeper at writing and all its elements to understand what makes it good, bad, different, unique, fresh, stale, or even hopeless. We learn the most from analyzing great writing but we also learn from analyzing crappy writing, so never think you can’t learn from even the poorest attempt at fiction (even if all you learn is what NOT to do). In the process of learning how and why to read others’ writing like this, we gain insight into our own as well.
You may ask yourself, what is close reading, or annotating a book or poem? Close reading is a valuable skill for writers. The practice opens up a broader and deeper view by critical, thoughtful reading of prose or poetry. It is deeper than reading for pleasure; it is about analyzing rather than being entertained. The analysis involves many facets of the work, including awareness of why and how it entertains (or fails to!). The effect of close reading others’ work teaches you to analyze your own when you are preparing to edit.
Ok, then how do I do it? To do a close reading, you choose a specific passage and analyze it in fine detail, as if with a magnifying glass. You then comment on points of style and on your reactions as a reader. Close reading is important because it is the building block for larger analysis. Your thoughts evolve not from someone else’s truth about the reading, but from your own observations. The more closely you can observe, the more original and exact your ideas will be. To begin your close reading, ask yourself several specific questions about the passage.
I. First Impressions:
What is the first thing you notice about the passage?
What is the second thing?
Do the two things you noticed complement each other? Or contradict each other?
What mood does the passage create in you? Why?
II. Vocabulary and Diction:
Which words do you notice first? Why? What is noteworthy about this diction?
How do the important words relate to one another? Do any words seem oddly used to you? Why?
Do any words have double meanings? Do they have extra connotations?
Look up any unfamiliar words.
III. Discerning Patterns:
Does an image here remind you of an image elsewhere in the book? Where? What’s the connection? [Doesn’t apply to our exercise.]
How might this image fit into the pattern of the book as a whole? [Also doesn’t apply.]
Could this passage symbolize the entire work? Could this passage serve as a microcosm–a little picture–of what’s taking place in the whole work?
What is the sentence rhythm like? Short and choppy? Long and flowing? Does it build on itself or stay at an even pace? What is the style like?
Look at the punctuation. Is there anything unusual about it?
Is there any repetition within the passage? What is the effect of that repetition?
How many types of writing are in the passage? (For example, narration, description, argument, dialogue, rhymed or alliterative poetry, etc.)
Can you identify paradoxes in the author’s thought or subject?
What is left out or kept silent? What would you expect the author to talk about that the author avoided?
IV. Point of View and Characterization:
How does the passage make us react or think about any characters or events within the narrative?
Are there colors, sounds, physical description that appeals to the senses? Does this imagery form a pattern? Why might the author have chosen that color, sound or physical description?
Who speaks in the passage? [Not dialogue but who the POV addresses.] To whom does he or she speak? Does the narrator have a limited or partial point of view? Or does the narrator appear to be omniscient, and he knows things the characters couldn’t possibly know? (For example, omniscient narrators might mention future historical events, events taking place “off stage,” the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, and so on).
Are there metaphors? What kinds?
Is there one controlling metaphor? If not, how many different metaphors are there, and in what order do they occur? How might that be significant?
How might objects represent something else?
Do any of the objects, colors, animals, or plants appearing in the passage have traditional connotations or meaning? What about religious or biblical significance?
If there are multiple symbols in the work, could we read the entire passage as having allegorical meaning beyond the literal level?
The above outline proposes thoughtful points of observation in the form of questions. Don’t be overwhelmed by them. Consider them a guideline for ways to look inside the passage and read deeper, read critically for everything from grammar and language to poetic phrasing, metaphors, and pacing.
The process of close reading, or reading critically, teaches a writer to not just take in the ideas on the whole but to look at how the writing presents them and the methods the author uses to produce that writing. It’s like the difference between looking at a building and appreciating how tall and wide and brown it is versus inspecting how the architect designed the roof beams and window frames to create the result. It’s about studying the construction rather than simply acknowledging the building exists.
This month, we have decided to do something a bit different. After reading the information regarding close readings and how to do one, we are asking that you, OWLS, actually do one. Pick a technique you want to learn about, anything you need to improve on in your writing and then find a book, novella, poem or short story where the author uses this technique and read to analyze how they did what they did. Then, once you have read, write your own close reading. Yes, you can read and learn without writing a close reading, but it is in the act or writing it that you truly cement your knowledge, and after all, we are writers, right? Bring your close reading to the August meeting where we will go over them and analyze the close readings to see what everyone got out of them.
Hope to see everyone in August, and don’t forget, August 20th is the deadline for our “It’s the Only Story I’ll Ever Tell” short story contest. Details can be found under the contest tab.