During my recent process of educating myself about writing, I have undertaken a study of the concept of “close reading” or “artful reading” as some refer to it.
In between the hurly burly of work, I.T study, pet ownership, fatherhood and marriage – *gasp for breath* – I took a few moments to think about what I could do to improve my skills as a writer. In attempting to work out what I could do to improve my writing I had a think about why I wanted to write and what was the main driving force behind it.
To cut a long story short:
- I like reading because I can escape to a new and different place.
- I like reading because I can learn new information about the world generally and the human condition.
- I like reading because of my love of language.
- Because I love language, reading is the most natural and intuitive way of learning its workings. (Far more natural and intuitive than highschool English class!)
So If I enjoy reading for these reasons, the question I had to ask myself is: Do I primarily read just to “get through” a book or do I conciously read to “get something out of” a book?
When I read, for example, The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P Lovecraft, do I just breeze through a tale of a decadent town of mutant fish-people and enjoy the spine-tingling tale at face value? Do I take any more from the story than casual enjoyment or is my reading of it really only as deep as the reading I would do of a magazine, or a shopping list or a restaurant menu?
Beyond that, what kind of information about writing and writing technique can I take from a book through reading? What questions can I ask when reading a text to give me a better understanding of what the author was trying to convey or how they were going about conveying a message? Can I, through questioning, ascertain a better understanding of the emotional and psychological effect of the writing and the method of writing used by the author to obtain this effect? Through questinging can I gain an more nuanced understanding of the author?
Just the presence of these questions floating around in my head seemed transformatory to my way of thinking. Instead of thinking “Why are Egwene and Nynaeve being so bitchy?” whilst reading the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, I suddenly found myself thinking “What does Robert Jordan’s portrayal of Egwene and Nynaeve say about his opinion of women and their place in society?” or instead of thinking “Gee, Rand is such a lecher for having 3 girlfriends” I started thinking “Is Robert Jordan making a statement about relationships or marriage and how they’re viewed? “. Obviously these are thematic questions, but are they necessarily the best kind of questions for a reader to be asking if they want to improve their own writing skills or technique? Read on and find out 😉
So how do scholars of literature actually define “close reading” and where does it really come from ?
Wikipedia defines in the following manner:
“Close reading describes, in literary criticism, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read.” 
It goes on to describe the origins of close reading:
“Literary close reading and commentaries have extensive precedent in the exegesis of religious texts. For example, Pazand, a genre of middle Persian literature, refers to the Zend (literally: ‘commentary’/’translation’) texts that offer explanation and close reading of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. The scriptural commentaries of the Talmud offer a commonly cited early predecessor to close reading. In Islamic studies, the close reading of the Quran has flourished and produced an immense corpus. But the closest religious analogy to contemporary literary close reading, and the principal historical connection with its birth, is the rise of the higher criticism, and the evolution of textual criticism of the Bible in Germany in the late eighteenth century.” 
So are there different kinds of close reading?
The short answer, is yes. With the vanilla defintion of close reading being the close attention to words on the page and how they’re strung together – you can close read a book to a civil rights point of view or a feminist point of view – seeking to abstract from the writings what it has to say about justice and civil liberties and the rights of women and their place in society. You could do the same for race, national identity, sexuality and sexual preference, – or just about any other topic you can think of. These are the kinds of thematic questions that I immediately leapt to and which I gave examples of earlier. They are all well and good for the understanding of a work but are these likely to actually help you with the nuts and bolts craft of writing? Probably not so much.
So what kind of questions should a writer be asking when reading a novel? What kinds of questions can help a writer learn which nut goes on which bolt?
This is where formalism comes in. Wikipedia defines the formalist approach to literature in the following way:
“Formalism is a school of literary criticism and literary theory having mainly to do with structural purposes of a particular text.
In literary theory, formalism refers to critical approaches that analyze, interpret, or evaluate the inherent features of a text. These features include not only grammar and syntax but also literary devices such as meter and tropes. The formalist approach reduces the importance of a text’s historical, biographical, and cultural context. “
As you can see, what the formalist school of thought in literary theory is concerned with is why the author put those words on the page the way they did. They were “concerned the components of language, a text’s formal elements – and how they give form to the completed story”, rather than broad themes concerning the human condition like life/death/love/justice/war/etc. This isnt to say there is not value in asking thematic questions, but they’re not necessarily the best questions to ask when learnign the nuts and bolts of writing and even the most far-out literary critics ask a whole lot of formalist questions when critiquing literature. 
Dr Timothy Spurgin says:
“So a formalist might ask: “Why is this story told in the first person?” or “How is this character introduced to the reader?” or “Why arent the events of the book told in chronological order?” 
He gives examples of other formalist questions:
“Are those words [in the story] casual or refined? Are they familiar or unfamiliar? Going further – does the language stay the same from start to finish or is there some sort of movement or modulation; a shift into a different register or key? Finally, what feelings lie behind the choice of words? are they obvious or obscure? Are they right on the surface or have they been disguised or hidden in some way?” 
By now I’m hoping you can see some of the potential benefits of this kind of close reading can have for those of us seeking to improve our writing. Here are a couple of examples of questions we can ask when reading a novel and how they might potentially improve our writing or help us to think differently about how we might go about writing:
- When reading a novel, such as a horror story or a “whodunit?” crime novel, one might ask “why is this written in first person? what effect would this have had if it had been written in third person? Would it have had the same level of suspense?” In answering this we might come to the view that when a novel is written in the first person view and the reader is placed literally inside the head of the protagonist, might provide a “close up” view of the books events and provide a heightened level of suspense.
- So if a horror or whodunit may be better as first person (i wont speak in absolutes), how would this contrast to a High or Epic fantasy novel featuring a large cast of characters? Would they benefit as much from the same point of view or would a different point of view be better suited to such novels? In answering this we might posit that a novel such as a high or epic fantasy be better form the 3rd person, given that you could move the reader further away from the protagonist so they might be able to better see the larger cast of characters and the world around them.
I’ll leave it there for now and I hope I can come back and revisit this topic again soon and go into some further detail about the kinds of formalist questions we can ask when close reading and how they may assist us in honing our own writing skills and technique.
Hope you found some benefit or enjoyment from this blogpost 🙂