Reading to Write

College-level writing focuses on analyzing and evaluating as opposed to summarizing.  For example, we would not be writing merely to describe a poem or restate a theory in anthropology, but to explain whether (or not) and why we think the poet’s use of language is effective and why we believe (or not) that there is adequate evidence for the theory.

The focus of college-level writing needs to inform our approach to reading. If our task were merely to describe a novel or restate an interpretation of an election, we could read passively, just taking in information so that we can repeat it. However, given that our goal is to analyze and evaluate, we must read actively, and that means we must constantly ask questions.  The sorts of questions we raise will differ depending upon the work.  The queries at the heart of “close readings” of literary texts differ from those at the core of “critical readings” of research.  That said, in either case, our attentive reading results in questions, which then lead to re-readings and more and deeper levels of questions. These deeper questions drive our analysis of the work, while our answers to them lead to our assessment of the work.

Last revised on January 25, 2018.

Close Reading

In “A Short Guide to Close Reading for Literary Analysis,” the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center, describes “close reading” as “a process of finding as much information as you can in order to form as many questions as you can.”  If we are relatively new to literary analysis, we may wonder what sort of information we should be trying to find.  No worries.  The University of Portland’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Close Reading,” gets us started with a list of ten “Things to Look for in Close Reading” (for example, word choice, tone, imagery)  Moving from information to interrogation, Professor Wheeler at Carson-Newman University provides examples of the kinds of questions we might ask in his “Close Reading of a Literary Passage.”      Finally, Harvard and the University of Wisconsin-Madison provide illustrations of applying close reading to texts: in the case of Harvard, a prose passage by Loren Eisley; in the case of Madison, a poem by Robert Frost):

Last revised on January 25, 2018.

Critical Reading

After posing the question, “What does it mean to interpret a text critically?” SUNY Empire State College offers the following answer, “It means being a discerning reader who: questions what you read; thinks about what the author wants you to believe and works to convince you; decides whether the author’s views are worthy of agreement.”

If we are feeling at all shaky about our powers of discernment, we might be asking, “What are the sorts of questions discerning readers raise?”  The University of Washington helps us out here with some questions based on an adaptation of J.K. Beyer’s “Critically Analyzing an Academic Article or Book” AnalysisPapers.pdf.  SUNY Empire State provides complementary guidance in the form of worksheets, each with its own set of questions: Authority of the Writer; Logic of The Writer’s Argument; Ways in Which the Writer Gets Your Interest; Writer’s Use of Language and Style; Ideology that Informs the Text. .”

Last revised on January 25, 2018.

Taking Notes

Whether our work involves close readings or critical readings, we will want to jot down questions and ideas as we work our way through a text.  Active reading is hard work and we do not want to lose track of our insights.  Since careful reading generates questions, one approach to note taking is to organize our reflections under question and sub-question headings, leaving plenty of space beneath each question for relevant observations and reflections.  As we continue recording questions and reflections, we may discover our thesis statement and the outline of our paper.

Our note taking will be most efficient, if we take the time to document our sources, using the style our professor requires (see “Acknowledging Sources” under “Writing to Understand” below).  And, we also double check to make sure that any quotations in our notes are exact; avoid inadvertent plagiarism by providing our own summaries and paraphrases of the material (see “Avoiding Plagiarism” below under “Revising.)

Last revised on January 25, 2018.