In any high school or college class where you’re reading texts and writing about them, your writing will be more effective if you know how to perform what teachers call a “close reading.” Similarly, if you’re writing a business report or proposal, you’ll be much more likely to reach your goals if the document reflects a close, careful reading of your primary sources.

Close Reading: The Basic Process

Say you have an assignment to read a novel and write an essay on it for an English class. If you were reading the same story for pleasure, you might skim or even skip the less interesting parts. But if you have to write a paper or take an exam on the novel, you’ll want to read every word and take detailed notes as you’re reading. Pay attention to elements like plot, character, theme, setting and dialogue. If your teacher has given you a prompt for an essay, keep that prompt in mind as you read and be more attentive to elements of the narrative that might be relevant to your prompt. Remember that whatever you’re reading and writing about, language is the primary object of your attention. With a good novel or short story, you might get caught up in the narrative and read quickly the first time through. But don’t rely on your memory of that initial, brisk reading when you’re writing your essay. Even if you completed the reading five minutes ago, your memory of important details can be faulty and imprecise. Good analysis depends on consistent engagement with your text. So you need to have the text right there in front of you as you’re writing, use carefully selected quotations and paraphrase with complete accuracy by checking everything you write against what’s in the text. Close reading involves inductive reasoning – you’re observing particular textual elements and moving to general interpretive conclusions based on your observations. The inductive logic you use in close reading requires careful gathering of data  and careful thinking about what your data indicate. There are specific practices that will help you to perform such tasks efficiently.

The Habits of Close Reading: Annotating and Tracking

Two useful practices you’ll want to develop for your close reading are annotating and trackingAnnotationmeans reading with a pencil or pen and in hand, underlining key words or phrases and taking notes in the margins of the text. Tracking goes hand-in-hand with annotation—it means looking out for and writing down significant patterns, symbols, correspondences, cultural references, or anything else that seems surprising or potentially meaningful. With annotation and tracking, you’re basically conducting your own conversation with the text, which is the first step toward formulating a solid analytic argument. The following paragraph from the first chapter of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep offers a good example of what a close reading can yield:

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him.

This excerpt comes after the novel’s first paragraph, in which we learn that the first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe, is a private detective who is “calling on four million dollars”—that is, meeting with a wealthy potential client. A close reading of the paragraph quoted above can reveal some important elements of the story. First, we might notice Marlowe’s flair for vivid, witty language when he describes the doors by observing that they “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants” (this is much more interesting than saying simply that the doors were very big). When he goes on to describe the knight and the naked woman in the stained-glass panel, we see further evidence of his linguistic skill and a great example of the Shakespeare’s observation that “brevity is the soul of wit.” It’s much more concise and witty to say that the naked woman has “some very long and convenient hair” than to specify what her hair is covering. So we learn that Marlowe uses language in ways that combine conciseness and humor. The detailed description also adds to Chandler’s characterization of Marlowe as sharply observant—a trait that’s pivotal to his role as the hard-boiled detective-hero.

I Read, Therefore I Question

Your teachers and your future (or present) employers want to see you develop your critical awareness, and one great way to do this is by engaging with your texts more actively. This doesn’t mean being critical in the sense of issuing a lot of negative opinions on what you’re reading. It means seeing yourself as a sort of investigator and theorist—consistently curious, sometimes skeptical, always in search of meaningful discovery. So in your reading, try to develop the habits of asking questions, supplying provisional answers, and giving a lot of careful thought to interpreting each text. These practices will help you greatly in gathering both ideas and evidence that will form the basis of the essay that you’ll eventually write. If you were reading and annotating The Big Sleep, you might want to highlight the description of the stained-glass window above and pen a question in the margin—Why does Marlowe spend so much time describing the image of the knight rescuing the woman? When you inscribe your thought or question in a text or in your notebook, you’re also inscribing it memorably in your mind. This will make you more likely to notice later details that connect with the earlier description to reveal a pattern, theme, or motif.  So when Marlowe himself rescues a naked Carmen Sternwood six chapters later, your close reading of the first chapter will help you to recognize that stained-glass imagery as symbolic foreshadowing that casts Marlowe as a sort of modern-day knight. Then you’d continue that close reading by keeping your eyes peeled for language or imagery pertaining to knighthood or chivalry later in the novel.

Haste Makes Waste—So Front-Load Your Work

You want to be efficient in getting your work done? It might seem that a close reading takes too much time—especially if you’re used to reading quickly, the practices involved in a close reading are likely to slow you down at first. But like many efficient habits, annotating, tracking and other methods of close engagement with your texts can actually save you hours of inefficient work. When you don’t read closely and attentively, you tend to overlook or forget many significant details. If you haven’t been annotating or tracking as you read, you have to go back and spend time searching for material to use in your paper—so you lose a lot of precious minutes or even hours just when you need them the most, with the deadline looming. Meanwhile, there’s your classmate who put some effort into reading closely and taking notes. Now she has a wealth of ideas and observations that she can transform into a killer argument without spending hours sifting through stuff she read two weeks ago. You’re stuck staying up till 5:00 a.m. turning the pages and frantically trying to cobble together dimly-remembered ideas into coherent analysis. Your classmate has got her paper done and saved, ready for submission as she enjoys a refreshing night’s sleep. Do it her way next time.