Scholars in the humanities approach texts using various methodologies and techniques, but the process of close reading is their basic analytic tool. While scientists conduct experiments and engineers build prototypes, humanities scholars write close readings showing how the details of a text create meanings for the work as a whole. Close reading, then, is the first step in writing a paper in the humanities.
“Close reading” is a funny phrase, though, because it’s both a verb and a noun, a process and a product. You do “close reading,” paying careful attention to the details of a text, and then you produce—and your instructors might ask you to write—“a close reading”: an argument about how those details work, what they say, and what they show about the text. To add to the confusion, the term close reading is sometimes used to refer to a whole essay: sometimes an entire essay can consist of just one close reading: a careful exploration, say, of the way that color works in a single painting. But other times, a close reading is just one part of a larger paper: an essay about the representation of women in a novel, for example, might use multiple close readings, each one addressing a different moment in the text, in the course of its argument.
The ambiguous status of close reading—as a verb and a noun, a process and a product, a whole and a part—results from the way that close reading, much like the writing process as a whole, is iterative and recursive. This means that close reading proceeds through multiple, repeated phases of rethinking and revision. As you close read a text, you’ll notice more and more details that seem significant, and seem to work together to create meaning. Then, since your understanding of the text’s meaning has deepened, more and more details will in turn seem meaningful.
A word of advice: because the term close reading can be used to describe so many different things, and often more than one thing at a time, it’s important to ask your instructor what they means by close reading, especially when it comes to writing your essays.
In your classes in the humanities, you will be asked to read and write about cultural objects, or texts, of various kinds. We tend to think of “text” as a term for written documents only, but anything you can analyze can be considered a text, including TV shows and film, music and dance performances, archaeological relics and billboard advertisements. Of course, the formal features you find in a text will depend on what type of text you are analyzing: you may make observations about the camera angles in a film, about the color palette of a painting, or about the rhythm or rhyme scheme of a poem.
Even historical events and cultural practices, and sometimes even scholarly works, may themselves be interpreted as primary texts, though they are more often considered as critical contexts for reading primary texts. (For more on using such texts as secondary sources, see What is Reading Critically? in the section on Doing Research.) But whatever type of text you are studying, the practice of close reading assumes that there is a relationship between content (what the text says) and form (how it says it). The practice of close reading also assumes that attending to the interplay between these realms can help you to understand both.
Knowing the date and author of a text is always helpful when you are reading, but there are other contexts to consider before and during your reading. Beyond knowing who created a text and when, you might ask: Where was this work created? What kind of cultural context was it produced in? What material or other conditions influenced its making? Where has it been read before, and what have previous readers said about it? You can even think about context in relation to when a work was created relative to its author’s full body of work (their “oeuvre”), or where a passage or episode occurs within a narrative, or where a poem appears in a book of poetry.
In addition to the historical and material contexts in which a text appears, another relevant context for your reading is the college course in which this particular text was assigned. Do you know why your instructor selected this text? Where does it fall in the syllabus? What are you expected to do with it? Is it a primary object of textual analysis or is it a secondary source that you will consider in relation to a primary text? Is writing about this particular text optional or required? Asking yourself and/or your instructor these kinds of questions will help you to read strategically and productively.
Every text has unique formal elements, which means that one task for your close reading will be to decide which elements to focus on. To do this, you might begin with the text’s genre or media, since these categories can provide helpful contexts for selecting and understanding formal elements. Novels, poems, films, plays, dances, paintings, photographs, and other types of cultural objects all depend upon different formal conventions influenced by the cultural contexts in which they developed. Considering how a given text conforms to or departs from these conventions is a good place to start your close reading.
When you read a novel, for instance, you might want to consider some of the most commonly recognized features of the novel as a genre: omniscient versus non-omniscient narration; first-person versus third-person narration; character and setting; a happy versus an unhappy ending. For poems, you might observe the use of such devices as rhyme scheme, rhythm, or meter, as well as a host of other sonic effects and literary devices such as figures of speech and diction. For paintings and photography, things like surface texture, composition, and subject matter are key formal elements. Remember: many texts have elements that reflect their relation to more than one precursor or genre—a novel might draw on both the epic and romantic traditions, or on both realist and fantasy genres. And some texts—such as a collage or an animated film—can be considered multimedia.
When you are in the process of reading a text closely, you may want to begin by compiling a list of the formal elements you notice. But when you write an essay, it’s never sufficient merely to list these observations. In order to produce a compelling, thesis-driven essay based on close reading, you need to make the move from observation to evidence. That is to say, you need to move from merely noticing what’s there to selecting the most important details and speculating about their potential meanings, and then to developing an interpretation of how these meanings contribute to the meaning of the text as a whole.
In order to take this next step, you might start by noting any formal elements that seem odd, weird, or puzzling. This might be something that stops you, or at least slows you down in your reading, and makes you say “hmm…” or “huh?” It might be an unexpected departure from character, a shift in narrative tone, or an unexpected plot twist in a novel. In a poem, it might be a change in rhythm or rhyme scheme, a strange image or word choice, or a striking figure of speech or rhetorical device. A painting might depict a machine where you would expect it to show a person, a splotch where you might expect fine detail, or other oddities of design affecting composition (arrangement of parts of or in the work), color, scale, proportion, or balance. Even the use of repetition in a text—something predictable or rhythmic rather than unexpected or jarring—might be worth noting and speculating about.
You can also think about significant textual elements and their potential significance in terms of the gaps, ambiguities, or contradictions in form or in the meanings that they create. If you don’t understand what’s going on in a text at a certain point, or if you read something that challenges your sense of the text’s surface or deeper meaning, don’t assume you’ve missed something: those moments may be ripe for readerly observation, interpretation, and argument. Your job as a reader is not to smooth over (or ignore!) these kinds of confusing or contradictory elements in a text; rather, your job is to identify these sites of tension or complexity in order to develop an argument about their significance.
Here are a few practical guides to help you get started with close reading:
Three Close Reading Methods
12 Steps to Literary Awareness
Close Reading Literature
Literary Terms for Close Reading
There are many more close reading handouts and exercises at Teaching Close Reading (in the For Instructors section of this website.)
Poetry and fiction are the most common forms that you will encounter in literature-focused classes. Before you begin your close reading, it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with some of the literary terms used to describe the fundamental elements of prose fiction and the figurative devices that constitute the basic elements of poetry.
The principle of close reading has its origins in the study of literature, particularly poetry, which is one reason that there are many more literature-specific guides to close reading than there are guides of this sort for other disciplines. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that since different humanities disciplines explore texts from different historical periods, geographic locations, languages, and media, they tend to close read their texts in somewhat different ways, by asking different questions and using different terminologies and methodologies. As such, the particular discipline within which you encounter a text—possibly related to the course and department in which you are studying that text—might well be considered as an important context for your close reading of it.
As we develop the “Writing Across the Humanities” website, we will include more resources for close reading non-written and non-literary texts. In the meantime, Montclair State University Center For Writing Excellence provides an excellent annotated compendium of resources that can help you to begin close reading texts in various humanities genres, media, and disciplines. Your instructor and your librarian can suggest many more resources providing information about discipline-specific reading practices.