The Books

Reaping the Rewards of Close Reading

My mark-ups from closely reading “Bullet in the Brain.”

The very first day of my Critical Reading and Writing: Short Story Writers class last semester, my teacher had us read “Close Reading,” the first chapter from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writerand “Good Readers and Good Writers” by Vladimir Nabokov.  My courses stressed the importance of “reading closely,” — like a writer, not a reader.  And yet, none of those courses really explained what exactly close reading was supposed to look and feel like.

I didn’t really grasp what it meant until this semester.  The very first day of my Graduate Workshop II, we closely read Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.”  I assume there are numerous methods to close reading.  The one I am discussing here is brought to you through my professor by Jim Shepard, Mark Winegardner, conversations between my professor and her colleagues and alcohol.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Read like a reader — no pens, no highlighters, just be your average reading self.
  2. Read again, starting with where you believe the beginning of the end is then looping back to the beginning and reading fully.  Use pen.  Don’t just underline; make notes on
    • Consistency (or changes) in voice;
    • Revelations in the end that was seeded in the beginning.
  3. Note recurring motifs — any significant or insignificant objects or actions that occur throughout.
  4. Try to discover a theme.
  5. Note any patterns that emerge (anything that occurs two or more times).
  6. Determine the conflicts, both acute and chronic.

It’s tedious.  Very tedious.  After having now closely read and discussed John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” and Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta,” I’m not 100% sure that some of the patterns discovered and dots connected between pathetic fallacies and objective correlatives (among other things) aren’t being pulled out of thin air.


Yep, it's pretty tedious.
Yep, it’s pretty tedious.

Hyper analysis aside, I have take away some of the techniques and applied them to my own writing.  Like the pattern of alliteration throughout a work, using word choice as an objective correlative (having objects, images, and actions speak for the silent character — i.e., the weather in “The Swimmer” mirroring the mood of the protagonist’s relationship), and tightening my leitmotifs.

Most of this is stuff many of us writers do subconsciously, anyway.  In a dark, macabre story, we tend to instinctively know to include dark imagery and actions.  In a love story, we include romantic, wistful language.  But, I’m noticing how much more stronger my pieces are when I consciously think of the verbs, the descriptions, the objects I choose to include in a piece — in particular, flash fiction where almost every little detail counts.  (Or maybe I’m just tossing my flash fiction in here because three of my pieces were discussed in my Forms in Fiction class earlier today.)

I won’t pretend that every single word I write in my fiction right now matters (I’ve always been very talkative/wordy).  But I can say a lot more matters now than before.  And, when my pieces are Workshopped, there is a heightened sense of pride and confidence that comes in knowing at least what I consciously intended to do.  If I’ve achieved that goal, great.  I’ve reaped my reward.  If not, I know I need to go back and closely read my own work to see what can be added.

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