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Writing: Close Reading is Where Writing Begins

Good writing begins with close reading

What is close reading?

Close reading is a way of reading for meaning.  The reader carefully analyzes a passage, article, or other written work to focus on the details of a text.   Often close reading is done with a pencil (or stylus) in hand.

Close reading is reading like a detective.  When you close-read,  you observe facts and details about the text.  During this process, you uncover layers of meaning that can lead to deep comprehension.  This can include not just meaning based upon the words, but it can embrace larger themes or ideas implied by the text and the strategies used by an author to communicate meaning.


How can it help you be a better writer?

Good writing always starts with careful reading, and it applies to a variety of academic situations  Close reading can ...

  • help you understand lengthy or complex directions
  • help you critically examine evidence and form conclusions, which is needed in just about every assignment here at CGI
  • help you construct your own argument about an idea, issue, or plan since close reading can help you discover connections between others' work and your own thinking
  • assist with the process of synthesizing, or making connections between themes in several different sources

Step One of Close Reading: Get Ready

Get ready to read. Have a plan.

  • Consider how you read best.  Are you comfortable reading on screen?  Would a printout be better?  
  • Marking up the text is essential.  If you plan to read on screen, make sure you have an app that can handle annotations.  If you plan to read in print, have a pencil and highlighter handy.
  •  Find a quiet place, settle in, and get comfortable.

Step Two of Close Reading: Plan and Ponder

Next, think about what you already know about the author and article.​​

  • Begin by thinking about what you are reading.  Is it a set of directions?  A textbook?  blog? A scholarly article?  What is the purpose for this piece of text?
  • Look to see if there is a brief author bio, or quickly google the writer.  What is the writer's field or discipline?  Look at where and when and who published it.  Knowing this information can help you think about the LENS or POINT OF VIEW that the writer brings to the topic.

Example:  If the writer is an MD and the item you are reading is an article from NEJM, chances are the author is looking to communicate the results of his/her own research with his peers and the greater medical community.

Example:  If the writer is a licensed professional counselor writing a blog post for Psychology Today, chances are s/he is trying to reach peers and colleagues for practical, not scholarly, purposes.

Example:  If the author is not acknowledged, but the item you are reading is a webpage on acupuncture from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, you know that the intended audience is either consumers or providers, and the purpose of the page is to provide a starting point for informational purposes.

  • Finally, think about what you want to get out of the text.  Why are you reading it?  How can this source help you with your assignment or research purpose?

Step Three of Close Reading: Read Actively

Next, think about what you already know about the author and article.Plan to read your text at least twice.​

  • First, read for the gist.  Quickly read over the text to get the general meaning or purpose.  This is also known as skimming.
  • Now read a second time.  During this reading, you should annotate, or mark up the text, with notes.
  • Jot down your questions, responses, ideas.
  • Summarize key points.
  • Make connections to other sources, class lectures, or your own research purpose.
  • Define any words you don't understand, especially jargon and technical terms.

If the text is lengthy, consider these additional strategies:

  1. Number the paragraphs or sections in the LEFT margin to use as signposts for yourself.
  2. Chunk the text.  Draw a horizontal line between paragraphs to divide the page into more manageable sections.  
  3.  Make notes with a purpose. 
    • Use the LEFT margin to summarize what the author is saying in key areas.  Keep these restatements to 10 words or less.  (Not only will this help you locate key passages, but putting important ideas in your own words is a good way to paraphase!)
    • Use the RIGHT margin to dig deeper into meaning.  Note your questions.  Use a writer power verb to think about what the author is trying to accomplish in this area.  "Power verbs" express the writer's purpose and can help you get at a deeper meaning by understanding what the writer is trying to do.


Author Power Verbs
Illustrate Explain Compare Contrast Argue
Summarize Describe Evaluate Predict Trace
Formulate Analyze Infer Support  


Here's what close reading might look like:

Example of marked-up text

Source of image: