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Close Reading in English Literature AS and A2

It’s very easy when writing an English essay to get caught up in discussion of the themes of the piece of literature and forget other crucial components, especially when writing a comparison essay as this is generally the most obvious thing to compare. But whether you’re writing your coursework or you’re in the exam and trying to remember all the different things you can gain marks for, close reading or close analysis is actually a very easy way to impress the examiners and is an important element to any essay gaining top marks. The beauty of close reading is that very often it isn’t something you need to revise for (music to anyone’s ears that is overwhelmed by revision).

There are five easy steps to making sure you have a small amount of close analysis in every point you make.

Each time you include a quote in your essay, which should really be every time you make a point, take a minute to read over the sentence. If you’re not in an exam situation read it out loud as well.

Second, think about the most obvious literary techniques; you do not need to be commenting on something incredibly sophisticated in order to tick the box for close reading. There may be alliteration, sibilance or a simple simile in the sentence. Always make a short comment on this and the effect it produces for the reader/audience.

Thirdly, look for the key words which stand out from the sentence. It may seem like you’re over analysing, a common complaint amongst English students, but the author has often spent a huge amount of time on the detail; the originals of Emily Dickinson’s poems, for example, have great lists of words surrounding them as alternatives for those she had originally selected. Think about and comment on why the author may have chosen this particular word, it is never wrong to consider what it evokes personally for you; you are after all “the reader”.

Fourth, think about whether any of the words have double meanings and consider whether the alternative reading can be commented on, whether it creates a sense of irony or a comic effect. For example, the word “noble” can be used in the honouring, chivalric sense but also to mean honest or good. Including this level of detail will see your marks rise rapidly.

Finally, consider the sentence structure; is it a long, wordy sentence or is it blunt, short and sharp? It is also worth glancing at the sentence before and after it (if you are not in an exam situation) and judge whether the length of sentence you are studying is significant in comparison to those surrounding it.
Close reading is not something to get too worried about; some people find it far easier than others but if you think critically you should always be able to comment on one of the four main points. Practice as you learn quotes for the exam, that way when you include that quote the close analysis of it you did during revision will naturally jump to your mind.

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