Close Reading — It’s Good for You

Back in June of 2015, I wrote a post about how excited I was to teach a class in our Professional Writing major called The Writer’s Craft. As it turns out, I’m teaching the same class again this spring semester, five years later. I have enjoyed recasting this class with some new writing to explore, new pedagogies to try, and five more years of teaching confidence under my belt.

As I noted in the earlier post, this class does not look at the why of a piece of writing. Instead, we focus on the mechanics, the how, the craft. What words does the writer use? How are those words making this piece sing? What about sentence structure? Paragraphing? How is this dialogue telling us the story without telling us the story? We’re still using some tried and true greats (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck), but I’ve added a few titles still classic but not as old (Tim O’Brien, E. B. White, John Updike, Flannery O’ Connor), along with diversity (Joy Harjo, Jame McBride, and a few names I’m still researching), plus some YA and fantasy genre pieces (also still researching).

Seriously, the class is planned, but in the short time frame between closing out J-term capstone class and beginning the spring semester (3 days), I found myself with a few TBDs on the reading schedule that I’ll fill in as we go along.

College teaching is just sometimes like that.

In addition, we’re still using Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writerbut this time I’ve also added Anne Lamott’s delightful Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeIt may be 25 years old, but I know it will speak volumes to my students about being writers.

 

The essence of the class is what Prose calls “close reading.” Usually when we read for pleasure, we skim along, anxious to discover who falls in love, or whodunit, or how to solve that problem the book promises to solve.

With close reading, however, we linger over the words. The students receive printed copies of the pieces they’ll be “close reading” so they can write all over them — commenting, highlighting, underlining, circling. This kind of reading helps us to read, as Prose says,

. . . more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. . . . I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls ‘putting very word on trial for its life.’

As writers, our currency is the words we string together. We write our first drafts and then go back and revise, putting every word on trial, forcing it to explain why it should stay, removing or replacing it if the case isn’t made — if the lyricism or characterization or structure or foreshadowing requires something else.

As we read these masterful writers, we stand in awe at how they make look so simple a scene that we know required dozens of small perfect choices.

And even as I continue to journal Scripture, close reading is causing me to slow down on familiar passages and read them more carefully, seeing them anew.

In our busy culture with quick social media posts and constant bombardment of words, it’s almost a relief to be forced to slow down and delight in the world an author so carefully crafted for us.

Try a little close reading. It’ll do you good.

What’s your favorite book that has delighted and astounded you with its writing?

5 thoughts on “Close Reading — It’s Good for You

  1. Linda,

    I’m a big fan of Simon Winchester;s The Professor and the Madman for the writing and the unusual storytelling that became a NY Times bestseller. It’s about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve seen an online clip of a forthcoming movie about it with Mel Gibson. It’s one of my favorite books. Thanks for this fascinating article.

    Terry
    Get a FREE copy of the 11th Publishing Myth

  2. For craft, I recommend STORY by Robert McKee. Though it focuses on screenwriting, the tips are good for novelists as well.

    I love Lord of the Rings because of his descriptions and epic dialogue.

  3. I enjoyed this post, only wish life allowed me to audit your class.
    I didn’t understand the title (Closing Reading?), however, nor the use of “very” in the quote.

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