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Term Paper Writing 101
Lesson Four: Close Readings

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Building Your Argument Part One: Close Readings

Close reading is a term used to describe how you ought to be using your sources. The most important element of close reading is questioning; it is imperative that you actively engage the text in order to develop your own ideas to use as arguments.

If at all possible, make your close reading your second reading of the source. If you've read it once already, you will have a basic understanding of the text, and you can focus on a more intensive questioning.

Use highlighters - Take note of any and all points of interest in the text. If you've got a thesis in mind already, use several different colors of highlighter, each for information relevant to a separate prong of your argument. This will make your life much easier when you go back to integrate your sources, particularly if you've got an extensive amount of text to cover.

Look for patterns - Be aware of recurring techniques-both literary and rhetorical-which the author uses to illustrate a concept. Specific sorts of imagery, allusion, or dialogue, which seem to be similar or related inevitably, reveal a larger intention that can be made into an argument.

Ask questions - In expository work, continually ask yourself "Is this true? What evidence supports this statement? Can other conclusions be drawn from the facts of this text?" By deciding whether or not you agree with the arguments of your source, you'll begin to crystallize more subtle arguments of your own. In literature, question the author's purpose in using particular narrative structures. "Why is this metaphor used? What does the comparison signify? Why do we learn this particular piece of information in such a manner? Why is the setting dwelled on so much in this passage? What is the relationship between setting and character?” Write these questions in the margins as you go along.

Get down to the details - One of the most sophisticated close reading techniques you can incorporate into your work is an analysis of the multiple connotations of a specific word. Be aware of every single word the author uses. When you find one of particular interest, literally look it up in the dictionary and consider how each and every definition might be applied to the text. Even if the author uses it with one literal definition in mind, see if the connotations of the other definitions can be applied to your idea (This is particularly true of Shakespeare).

Consider the source in relation to other texts - If something in the work reminds you of something else you've read, there's quite possibly a good reason why. Consider how your source is a response to or a continuation of other texts. Always be on the look out for Christ symbolism and Greek mythological allusions; both are fairly easy to spot and can be effectively analyzed in support of a particular interpretation.

An Example:

From Coleridge's Kubla Kahn: "In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a pleasure dome decree; Where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man; into a sunless sea."

Your assignment is to write about how the poem illustrates the power of human creativity. In light of this, here are some questions to ask yourself right off the bat:

  1. Why does Coleridge select an Oriental locale and a historical figure to open his work?

  2. What is the significance of the word "pleasure," "measureless," "sunless"?

  3. What is Alph, and does Coleridge use it as the setting for his poem?

Answering these questions might involve a consideration of distance, in both time and space, related to the vastness of human capacity. You might also consider "measureless" and "sunless" as descriptive of types of knowledge or ignorance; in breaching the "sunless" sea with his dome, what sort of power is Kubla Kahn exhibiting? A trip to the dictionary (or, more likely, a glance at the inevitable foot note) will provide the information that the Alph is a magical river in mythology. This begs the question, "how does a fantastic setting relate to Coleridge's view of the imagination?

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