Strategies for Close Reading

Overview: What’s Close Reading?

A Close Reading (sometimes colloquially referred to as simply Reading) is a sustained analysis of the form and content of a text. Close Reading may also be referred to as Close Reading Analysis; Textual Analysis; Literary Analysis; or Interpretive Analysis.

While your Close Reading may reflect some of your perspective on the text, strictly speaking your Close Reading in and of itself is not the same as your argument claim or thesis.

Rather Close Reading is what you do (i.e. read, contextualize, analyze, compare, etc.) in order to arrive at your thesis, and in order to illustrate your thesis (i.e. make your argument) you will provide your audience with a concise and relevant selection of your Close Reading so as to illustrate how you arrived at your argument.

Providing a compellingly curated version of your Close Reading, is crucial to successfully arguing your thesis claim because it enables your audience to understand what exactly you examined; how you examined it; and what your method of examination reveals about the object you’re examined.

Close Reading Methodologies

In reality there are numerous ways to read, analyze, and interpret. Moreover, most sophisticated interpretive claims actually employ a variety of different close reading methods. Indeed, we must remember that close reading simply implies a sustained and focus examination of a text, and as you can imagine, there are a lot of different ways to study and pay attention to a particular text.

However, below I discuss two common close reading strategies (i.e. methods). The advantage of using these two methods (at least as a starting point) is that these two methods are already logically coherent.

Part of the trickiness of creating a literary analysis argument is making sure that the interpretive claim (i.e. thesis) you present is cogent and arguable within the parameters of the particular paper, presentation, or project you’re working on (e.g. you can’t realistically prove an argument that would require a book’s worth of research and analysis in only 5 pages!)

The two methods I present below can help you narrow the scope of your analysis, which in term helps you increase the rigor and thoroughness of your analysis, which in turn should help you to organize your observations and formulate a clear (coherent) and logically-sound (cogent) interpretive claim or thesis!

Close Reading Methods*
  • 1.  Archeological Dig*  the careful dissecting of one clear and appropriately-focused part of (i.e. passage in) the text
  • 2.  Follow the Trail* —the careful examination of a focused pattern or recurring element in the text

*Disclaimer the names of these two methods are my own inventions, so be warned, if you use them in another class, your professor may not understand what you’re referencing. Relatedly, these names are solely for the purpose of being able to identify and discuss these methods. At no place in any paper, presentation, or project should you explicitly refer to using or doing “archeological dig” or a “follow the trail” reading. When illustrating your thesis, you simply employ the strategies without actually referencing them.

Archaeological Dig

The archeological dig method entails a careful dissection of one particular passage. For the sake of example, we will assume we want to write a close reading paper on Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

1- The first thing you need to do is select the passage you will examine. 

  • For most college level papers, it’s important you really narrow the scope of your examination. You don’t want the passage to be too big. A good rule of thump for a prose text is to pick a passage that’s somewhere between a paragraph and two pages long.
  • In an archaeological dig, the passage is your object of examination [see handout on “What is a Textual Object?” for more details]. You will develop your entire argument around and about how you understand this passage working in the text. Ultimately then, the thesis statement you arrive at will go something like: Analyzing Y (THE FORMAL WORK of X), I argue that X (THE PASSAGE) in TITLE OF THE TEXT shapes our understanding of W (SOME PART OF THE TEXT’s CONTENT) in Z WAY.  

2- Study the passage and its context.

3- Identify as many of the various formal elements at work in this passage. By formal elements, I mean the specific literary or language choices the writer makes in order to depict their content.


  • Maybe you point out that in this passage he uses only short sentences.
  • Or maybe you notice that he uses words that remind you of fire. (Note: when a writer employs a particular category of words we refer to that language choice as diction.)  

4- Think about how each of these formal elements work individually.

5- Think about how these formal elements work together as a whole to shape this passage. How does this particular assemblage of formal choices (as opposed to other similar choices the author could have made) shape the way we might read the content communicated in this passage?

Follow the Trail

The Follow the Trail method entails identifying and carefully examining a focused pattern or small recurring element in the text. Again, for the sake of example, we will assume we want to write a close reading paper on Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

Follow the trail The second option involves gathering evidence as you go along.  With this method you are trying to look closely at the text to see what kind of themes, patterns, ideas are growing in the text.  

Instead of picking one longer quote, here you will concentrate on a specific element or formal choice that repeats across various passages.

In order to compelling establish a pattern, you need to find enough instances in which the writer repeats this formal element. How many instances does it take to establish a pattern depends on a various factors but mostly on the length or size of the text. For most of the book length narratives in this course, you will most likely want to find at least four or five instances of this element occurring throughout the text as a whole or in a particular chapter or section of the text. (Note: You will not need to discuss every single instances in your paper, but in order to establish a pattern, you will want to know there is in fact a recurring element.)

1. Identify the formal object you will examine as a trail or pattern in the text.

  • Again narrowing your scope and being specific are really important. You want to make sure that the tracks or bread crumbs you’re following are not actually huge interstate signs. You also want to make sure that you’re identifying a trail rather than localized elements of a particular passage.

Examples [note how even though each of the different textual objects might relate to a larger motif of visual knowledge or sight, they are all different from one another and will result in distinct trails and enable different interpretations.]:

  • Maybe you notice that Wright repeatedly uses optical metaphors to describe feelings of isolation.
  • Or maybe you notice a repeated association between reading and pictures throughout the narrative.
  • Maybe you wish to focus specifically on the way Wright describes (and doesn’t describe) the eyes of female characters.

2. Examine each instance in which this formal element appears. What work does this formal element do in each instance? (i.e. How does it shape our understanding of the content in that instance?).

3. Compare and contrast how this formal element works in the different instances. What similarities do you notice? What differences do you notice? Does the formal element have the same function in each of the instances? Are there similarities between the content depicted in these instances? Are their similarities and/or differences in how the writer pairs this formal element with other elements from one instance to the next?

Close Reading (Analysis) –> Interpretation (Argument)

Possible Thesis 1 – Archaeological Dig

In the opening passage in which Wright describes how at age four he set fire to his grandparents’ home, Wright depicts his boyhood thought process and curiosity in increasingly visual terms. In doing so, Wright establishes a tension between “natural” child curiosity and the dangers of black boys asking questions through which much of the themes and dynamics of the rest of the narrative will unfold.  

I might start by describing the scene in general and pointing out how Wright describes his boyhood yearning to know how the world works in a way that seems to to take him out of the physical reality of his present moment until it’s too late and the whole house is on fire.  I might point out how in describing this scene, Wright starts with a nod to sight, sound, and feeling, but as his curiosity about the fire grows, he describes all his moves in terms of sight and thoughts.  I would then need to explain how making this choice, Wright shows how when he is fascinated and thinking about something it also makes him distant.  Even though he is close to the fire, he sees it more than feels it.  Unlike touching something, we can see something from vey far the same way we can think about something that is distant from us.  It is as if the reality of the fire’s heat and smell and crackling sound are far away until the moment when he touches the forbidden to touch curtains and it is too late  Then all of the sudden the scene becomes tangible and dangerous.   To aid this point  I might also point out how Wright includes a couple of very short rhetorical questions in telling this scene.  I would explain that these questions are almost not needed for their content, but that what they do is mirror his anxious and excited thought process and suggest that there was only one right answer, one possible way for the events to unfold.  I would explain how this prodding questions with their inevitable answers add to the sense that Wright’s curiosity and his yearning were like something set in motion that couldn’t be stopped, but like the flame had to keep going.  I could point to maybe one other strategy that aids to this sense of Wright being caught in a growing desire for knowledge and hands on experience with the world that is perhaps understandable but ultimately dangerous to him and the people around him.  

Possible Thesis 2 – Follow the Trail

In Richard Wright’s narrative, the narrator emphatically depicts his black family and community’s resistance to books and reading. Yet [I argue that] his repeated references to books and the language of literacy (specifically his use of the word “read”) when describing instances of black people negotiating the visual logics of of race and racism also suggests that black people in a racist America are always reading and writing themselves as characters for white people to read.   

To illustrate this claim, I might point to Wright’s meditation on how the white woman who asks him if he can steal must be reading him like all black people as a child. Then I might point out the man at the optics company who puts on such a show that he actually invites the white people to kick him for a quarter.   Then I might point out his frustration with the white man from the north who seems to be able to read his hunger despite his best attempts to play the part of a happy negro, and finally I might conclude with the necessity of giving white people what they want to read by talking about Wright’s fear that once he starts reading the white people will see it in him, that they will be able to read the result of his reading.