Close Reading

In our class discussions this term, we wil focus on developming close reading skills to help you write and talk about literature. To practice these skills, you will write a short close reading paper that focuses on a single passage from the reading.

What is close reading?

One of the skills we will focus on this term will be close reading. “Close reading” is an important skill for reading, discussing and writing about literature. It might be unfamiliar at first, and it will require practice, but it essentially means nothing more mysterious than reading slowly and paying careful attention to the details of a text. Close reading is the basis of all literary analysis: arguments about poems, plays, novels, etc., must account for cultural and historical contexts, but they are ultimately grounded in what is on the page.

Writing your close reading in 5 easy steps

Pick a text and identify a section

Pick a story or poem that you would like to analyze. Choose something that interests you, and that you think deserves closer attention to how the text works. This means that there should be something about the tone, syntax, images, metaphors, or other uses of language that require more thought. There should be something going on that interests you beyond what happens in the story or poem.

Another way to think about this choice: Pick a story or poem where a reader could understand everything that happens (plot, characters, events) and still not fully understand the way the text works.

Once you've chosen a story or poem, choose a single passage or section of the poem (no more than a page) that you want to focus on. You should choose a section that lends itself to close reading and analysis; that is, a section that allows you to complete all of the steps in the close reading exercise.

Analyze your section

Just as we did in class, use the questions in the close reading exercise to guide your analysis of the section. Write down your answer to each question, and take lots of notes--aim to physically write down everything important you notice about the section.

Draft a thesis

Look back at your notes. What did you notice about the way this section works? What would a casual reader not have noticed? Why is what you noticed important? How does the way this section works help you understand something about the text as a whole?

Your thesis should answer all of these questions in some fashion. It should state what you will argue about the way this section works, and what insight your close reading of this section will provide into the work as a whole.

Write the close reading

Use your notes and the draft of your thesis to write your close reading. It should have a short introduction and a short conclusion, but the bulk of the word count should be devoted to the body of the paper, which should analyze the section in no more than three paragraphs (two is often, but not always, a good number of body paragraphs for an analysis of this length).

As you write the body of your close reading, keep in mind that your paper should not contain any quotations that are not accompanied by analysis. Your paper also should not cite outside sources, secondary research, or any evidence not drawn from the text itself--this is not a research paper.

Look back at the beginning and the end

Once you’ve drafted your analysis, take some time and re-visit that thesis. Is your initial thesis actually what you ended up writing about? Often, your argument changes--sometimes substantially--as you work through your analysis. If that’s the case, re-write your thesis to reflect your new argument. Use your conclusion to remind your reader why your argument is important: that is, how does your thesis help your reader better understand the scene.

Close reading FAQ

What are the parts of a good close reading?

For example...

A good close reading moves from specific textual details

the description of Babbitt's house doesn't make it sound very home-like

through a somewhat larger strategy for reading the text

the description of the house emphasizes its commercial and social functions

and towards a better understanding of the text as a whole.

the impersonal and commercial description of Babbitt’s house connects the home to the larger city of Zenith and emphasizes Babbit’s role as a representative citizen of Zenith.

What kind of evidence should you use to support your close reading?

Your close reading should provide evidence in the form of short quotations from the text, but it should also provide analysis of those quotations to explain the significance of the quotation and show how it fits into your argument. Your paper should not contain any quotations that are not accompanied by analysis. Your paper also should not cite outside sources, secondary research, or any evidence not drawn from the text itself—this is not a research paper. For more help with planning and writing your close reading, consult the writing resources, visit the Writing Center, and come by my office hours.

Who is the audience for your close reading?

Your audience for this paper should be a hypothetical classmate who has attended class and done the reading, but has not been overly studious or attentive. This classmate will definitely notice if you make an obvious claim, but there is also room to teach her something new about the readings and concepts from class. Your classmate does not need full, detailed summaries of the text, because she has already read it, but she does need concise reminders to help locate herself in the text and to remind her of what the important points were.

Evaluation and submission instructions

What your close reading should do

  • Identify and analyze a discrete and clearly defined section (no more than a page) of a single poem or short story
  • Make an argument about the way that section works and why it is significant to the text as a whole
  • Support your claims with evidence in the form of short quotations from the text, and provide analysis of those quotations to explain the significance of the quotation and show how it fits into your argument
  • Have a brief introduction that introduces the section, what you’ll be arguing, and why that argument is important
  • Have a brief conclusion that connects your analysis of the section to the essay as a whole
  • Be 750-1000 words long and contain a bibliography and in-text citations

Submission instructions

Your close reading is due by 5 PM on Friday, April 27. You should save your close reading as a Word file and upload it to the close reading folder on Sakai.


Your close reading is worth 13 points. Be sure to consult the grading scale as you write your close reading, and when you are interpreting your grade and comments.


If you wish to revise your close reading, your revision must be submitted by 5 PM on Friday, May 18. The grade you receive for your revised close reading will replace your original grade. Remember, an appropriate revision is one that exhibits substantive changes from the previous draft. Such changes go beyond mechanics, syntax, or other sentence-level changes and make major alterations to the paper’s organization, argument, evidence and/or analysis.