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Close Reading

Close reading is a style of analysis that is commonly used in schools and among lovers of literature around the world. There are five steps to close readings that you can explore below. 

Close reading provides readers with five steps to follow that should, by the time one reaches the end, have helped you come to a clear understanding of a specific passage, story, poem, or an entire love.  

Close Reading Definition, Characteristics, and Examples

Close Reading Definition

Close reading is a means of usually analyzing a specific passage or poem. Longer literary works are far more challenging to employ the below techniques in that they require readers to pay attention to every word and how every sentence is arranged. 

Close readings require students and lovers of literature of all reading levels to break down a passage or poem into its parts. This includes literary devices, images, and figurative language. The narrator, point of view, and the writer’s intentions and tone are also critical parts of close readings. 

How to Do a Close Reading?

In order to complete a close reading, there are five steps you should try to follow. These, outlined below, will help you get the most out of the process and ensure that you correctly see and interpret every element of the poem, short story, or novel you’re analyzing. 

The 5 Steps of Close Reading 

The five steps of close reading consist of:

  1. Read the Passage
  2. Annotate and Analyze the Passage
  3. Develop a Thesis
  4. Construct an Argument
  5. Create a Thesis-based Outline

We’ll explore each one of these in detail below.

1. Read the Passage 

The first step is to read whatever literary passage you want to analyze. Make sure to take your time and not skim. This means you should read every word and consider how they’re working together. But, at this point, pay attention to the words without trying to dig too deep into the analysis. 

2. Annotate and Analyze the Passage 

In step two, grab a pencil and mark up the passage. Circle words you think are important, underline those you don’t understand, and make sure to look for any instances of literary devices. When you read the passage this time, think about what the author wanted you to think about or feel. What is the tone? Confident, nervous, passionate? You might also find patterns that are important to note, such as repetition or contradictions. Some other questions you might ask include: 

  • Who is the narrator? 
  • What is the point of view? 
  • Which character is the hero? Is there a villain
  • What kind of language does the writer use? Casual, poetic, formal?
  • What is the effect of the literary devices you’ve noted? 

If you’re only analyzing a passage from a book, consider how it fits into the whole book and what you might learn about a character from what you’ve just read. 

3. Develop a Thesis 

Using the notes you took in the previous step, including what you feel the writer’s intentions are and the passage (if it is an excerpt) might say about the work. Using your analysis, compose a thesis. A thesis is a statement, or series of statements that declare and summarize your observations. You’re going to have the opportunity to revise this summarizing statement as you move forward to the next steps. 

4. Construct an Argument 

Now that you’ve tried to create a thesis summarizing your thoughts in this passage, poem, or short story, take what you’ve learned and consider why the writer might have used language in a way to lead you to your observations. What kind of words did they use that made you feel one way or another? What are your final thoughts about the tone, the narrator’s identity, and the common themes? 

5. Create a Thesis-based Outline

If you’ve completed a close reading for school or for a work assignment, you’re likely now going to need to write a complete document, like an essay, putting your thoughts to paper. You’re going to have to expand the summarizing thesis statement into a longer, far more in-depth analysis of the poem, novel, passage, etc. 

It’s important to do more than simply tell the reader what you think the writer is doing with their literary work. You must provide evidence from the text. This means including quotes to show why your thesis says what it does. 

Example of a Close Reading 

God’s World by Edna St. Vincent Millay 

As an example of how a close reading might play out, let’s take a look at the first stanza of ‘God’s World’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem begins with the lines: 

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!

Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!

Thy mists, that roll and rise!

Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag

And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag

To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!

World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

The first time you read the passage, enjoy the words and how the poet used them. The second time, break out a pencil or pen and begin to annotate the passage. You should, in this specific instance, take note of the poet’s use of repetition. For example, “Thy” begins three lines, and the poet uses a variation of the line “World, I cannot get thee close enough” in the first and last line of the stanza (known as a refrain). 

It becomes clear right away that the poet wanted to emphasize her speaker’s love of the natural world and her feeling of never being “close enough” to the beauty one can see on a day-to-day basis. Other literary devices you might note include: 

Now, as you analyze what you’ve annotated, you should come to a conclusion regarding what you’ve read. The speaker longs to lift the cliffs and bring herself as close to the “gaunt” crags as possible, but their mass is too great. Additionally, just as she is unable to handle everything she sees, so too is the world unable to carry its own beauty. The poet is implying that the world is very worthy of love and admiration, but the depth of beauty one can find there is overwhelming. 

Read more Edna St. Vincent Millay poems


What is the point of close reading? 

Close readings are a structured way of analyzing literature. They are most useful for short passages, such as a single paragraph from a novel or short story, or a shorter poem. A few stanzas from a poem can also be used within this analyzing format. 

What does close reading achieve? 

Close readings help students find the meaning of a specific passage. They will be able to break down a passage into its individual parts and then use what they learn to create a longer essay.

Why do a close reading? 

Close readings help students and literary lovers alike get to the heart of a passage. If you’re reading a particularly challenging novel, poem, essay, or story employing the techniques associated with close readings can help make sense of it. 

What are the five steps of close reading? 

The five steps are: #1 Read the Passage, #2 Annotate and Analyze the Passage, #3 Develop a Thesis, #4 Develop a Thesis, and #5 Create a Thesis-based Outline. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Critique: is defined as an evaluation of something, whether that be visual or literary arts. It analyzes all of the writer’s choices.
  • Explication: a literary technique that’s used to create a close analysis. Usually, it’s related to the analysis of a portion of a text.
  • Induction: a conclusion that’s reached after the analysis of facts. The conclusions might be right or wrong, but it depends strongly on the logic of the premises.
  • Scansion: the analysis of a poem’s metrical patterns. It organizes the lines, metrical feet, and individual syllables into groups.

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