Some Guidelines for Textual Analysis

A Brief Introduction to Textual Analysis

Professor Rodgers

Why do Textual Analysis?

By looking closely at a text and gathering evidence from it, it is possible to begin to understand how a text is constructed and how it communicates its meanings to readers in numerous and complex ways.  Every text can be viewed as a meaning-making machine.  However, identifying the ways in which meaning is generated in a text takes some practice and time.  

Below are a few suggestions for working with both your primary and secondary source materials.

Gathering Textual Evidence

  • Understand that an analysis of various elements, attributes, or characteristics of a text will add up to a meaning that may not be obvious.  Ask questions about each observation that you make about a text:  How does it relate to other elements, attributes, or characteristics of the text?  What significance does your observation and the evidence you have collected to support it have?

  • Look for repeated words, phrases, or actions.  Ask yourself:  does this repetition have some significance?  What possible meanings could this have?

  • Note patterns of repetition in characters, their behaviors, their language, their actions.  What might these patterns reveal about the character?

  • Examine your reaction to specific passages, characters, and events in the text.  Pay attention to these and trust them.  Try to figure out what it is in a specific passage, character, or event that elicits your interest, distrust, sympathy, etc.

  • Study specific passages or lines of dialogue or narration in the text that raise questions for you or seem somewhat odd.  What significance may these unusual passages or lines have for understanding and interpreting the story as a whole?

Using Secondary Sources

You may consult secondary sources to help generate your approach to a topic and your argument in order to gain new perspectives on your topic and learn from and analyze how critics interested in your source material write about it.  However, as explained by the authors of the Norton LitWeb, there are also some potential disadvantages, including,  becoming “overwhelmed by the sheer number of sources or by the amount and diversity of information,” or agreeing with all of the criticism and not feeling that you have anything new to add.  As a result, try to stay focused on your topic and your purpose for your research project as you consult these sources.  Your goal is to determine: What’s the conversation in this article about? Is it relevant or useful to the topic that I am writing about?  If no, what should I do with it?  If yes, how might I incorporate this conversation or specific points made into the article into the discussion of my topic in my paper?  

  • Do the critics tend to disagree about a particular issue? Might I take one side or another in this debate? Might I offer an alternative?

  • Do any critics make a claim that I think deserves to be challenged or clarified?

  • Do the critics ignore a particular element or aspect of the text that I think needs to be investigated? Do any of the critics make a claim that they don’t really develop? Or do they make a claim about one text that I might apply to another?

  • Is there information here that might help readers understand some aspect of the literary work in a new way?

  • Does any of this information challenge or complicate my previous interpretation of the text, or an interpretation that I think other readers might adopt if they weren’t aware of these facts?

Keeping Track of Textual Evidence

First, you will want to highlight or underline key passages, phrases, and/or words in the text and note your questions about your observations in the margin of the text.  Then you will want to write down your observations in your reading notebook.  You will also want to write down quotes from the text that you believe you may be able to use in your paper as textual evidence.  It is through a recursive process of writing down your observations, writing about your observations, writing about what you understand about the text and its elements, and seeing how the textual evidence you have collected might be used to support these insights that you begin to assemble material for your research essay.  

You will also want to keep in mind this guidance from the Norton LitWeb:

“The quality of your evidence will depend, in great part, on how you prepare and present it. Each of the ideas that makes up the body of your essay must be supported and developed with ample, appropriate evidence. While the term evidence refers to the facts at our disposal, it’s helpful to remember that a fact by itself isn’t really evidence for anything, or rather that—as lawyers well know—any one fact can be evidence for many things. Like lawyers, essayists turn a fact into evidence by interpreting it; drawing an inference from it; giving the reader a vivid sense of why and how the fact supports a specific claim. You need, then, both to present specific facts and to actively interpret them. Show readers why and how each fact matters.”

Works Consulted

Howe, Elisabeth.  Close Reading: An Introduction to Literature.  Pearson, 2010.

Jacobus, Lee A. Literature: An Introduction to Critical Reading.  Prentice Hall, 1996.

Rodgers, Johannah.  Digital Composition and Rhetoric.  

“Writing About Literature.” Norton LitWeb.  Accessed 23 April, 2017.

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