Close Reading Template: How to Slow Down

We have talked about close reading as a crucial component of the ways we strengthen several rhetorical elements of our compositions that we will focus on for the second writing project: Development and Coherence. Joseph Harris can guide us as well with his conception of “forwarding” a text. Here is a template you can use to think about forwarding as a process for annotating a text as well as a structure to build upon in developing your evidence across the body of your essay, a structure that is dynamic, not static, moving us (to use Harris’s terms) from paraphrasing to authorizing to quoting to extending.

  1. Set-up: Introduce the quotation briefly with basic summary or paraphrase: what’s the context; who is speaking and from where? Don’t throw the quotation at the reader. You can also begin to integrate/anticipate the interpretation you will be getting into after the quotation. Examples: While traversing the Alps Victor echoes the words of the poem “Mutability” in saying, “…”;  or even better: Victor’s fear of change is particularly evident when he echoes the lines from Mutability, “…”
  2. Close-up: The quotation. Choose a portion from the text that is not just relevant but rich, worth focusing on for your interpretation. In other words, your quoting should reflect the selective reading you are doing, moving your reading to the interpretation and development of your argument. You don’t quote to prove that you have read; you quote to read (with your reader) what you are proving regarding your argument.
  3. Follow-up: Put the quotation to work and explain/elaborate how it speaks to and supports and develops your critical vision (thesis). Extend from the quotation. Highlight key words, phrases, images. Don’t assume the quotation speaks for itself. Make it speak to your vision and how you want your reader to see it. Use suggestive imperatives: Notice that Victor (or Shelley or Walton) uses the word….  This is the place for interpretation, not summary. Slow the scene down and look at a specific frame. Think 3-5 sentences or more of good follow-up to the quotation.

To consider one example, Denise, a student from the course several years ago, writes about Frankenstein’s  intertextual link with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here is a specific paragraph that is effective in its close and slow reading–notice how she notices the particular word ‘serpent’ and puts that to work.

The plots, themselves, are inherently similar: an older man tells a younger man about something tragic that has occurred in his life in a first person, story frame format. The stronger tie, however, is the distinct air of warning that pervades both tales. In anticipation of his narrative, Frankenstein says, “I had determined, at one time, that the memory of these evils should die with me; but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (18-19). Frankenstein has been stung by a metaphorical snake in his past – and not just any metaphorical snake, but a metaphorical serpent. The connotation of the word “serpent” calls to mind certain evil; this word choice was very deliberate.  The ominous, cautionary nature of these words immediately strikes both Walton and the reader. This nature primes Frankenstein’s audience to listen carefully to his tale and take what moral each can. The Ancient Mariner, too, stops the wedding guest of his tale to relate his own morbid experiences, in the hopes that the guest will, like Walton, become wiser.  Both stories are told to impart a specific message to both their internal and external audiences. The Mariner warns that one should love everything that exists, something that clearly does not happen in Frankenstein. This negligence allows horrible events to occur in both stories; thus, Frankenstein echoes the Mariner’s warning. Likewise, one of the messages of Frankenstein seems to be on the dangers of knowledge, both in general and in its misuse. Like Frankenstein, the Ancient Mariner abuses knowledge by using it to kill an albatross and is then punished for it. 

For these reasons, I suggest a better term for close reading is slow reading. It is also, as you can see, a form of re-reading. And finally, it is a form of composition, in that it is a way to develop an argument, add to its complexity and coherence. Remember: just before that dreary day in November, Victor Frankenstein is building an “argument” for a way to rethink the act of human creation. He, like us, is developing his evidence and reasons across the body of his work. He does so, initially, carefully–and then inexplicably, gives that up in the name of “speed.” In his haste, Victor was not a good close reader.

The Argument of Frankenstein: Lessons in Slow Reading

Mary Shelley

In our reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we will focus on the concept that Joseph Harris calls “forwarding.” This is the ways that we use the ideas and texts of others in our writing, not merely to quote those sources or provide evidence, but to develop our own argument in response to what comes before it. We write and argue by means of rewriting.

This rhetorical conception of how we get others to read and sympathize and relate to our ideas–by effectively amalgamating those ideas with others, particularly other ideas and texts already established–can be aligned with pathos. This is our focal point for the second writing project. And it is also, it seems to me, a focal point in Shelley’s novel. Shelley, as we know from the title page, is engaged in forwarding and rewriting other established texts and ideas about creation. To that extent, I would argue that her novel presents an argument: it seeks, in its forwarding of various texts and amalgamation of a story out of those texts, to persuade us, to have us listen and read closely, carefully. What is her argument? I will ask the question now, and return to it once we have finished reading.

On the way to getting there, we can do some close reading, or as I prefer, slow reading, to give more attention–as I think Shelley is asking us to do–to the complications inherent to the project of rewriting an argument/narrative from her materials. (You can return to her “Introduction” for more on how she views her novel as an invention that rewrites). Here is a passage where slow reading, it seems to me, is necessary for readers. What makes it necessary is the fact that Victor, our creator and “author,” presents his creation and invention in rather rhetorical terms that we might recognize from our discussions of effective writing. [This passage comes from chapter 6 of our edition; there is no difference between the 1818 and 1831 editions in the case of this paragraph; forwarded from the Electronic Frankenstein.]

When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man. The materials at present within my command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking; but I doubted not that I should ultimately succeed. I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses; my operations might be incessantly baffled, and at last my work be imperfect: yet, when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success. Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability. It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being. As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After having formed this determination, and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.

As I slowly read–which for me includes rereading this passage more than once, returning to it–I notice this time the language of argument. Victor is making an argument for his creation; what’s more, he is thinking about his creation as a kind of argument, as something to be received by an audience, a way to publish the discoveries of his research to the world. Victor begins to consider carefully the argument that he should think through the implications of this discovery, a discovery that proposes to rethink creation. Victor thinks about the complexity and clarity and coherence of what he has in mind, and its importance to his intentions, to how his invention (i.e., his argument) would be received by his readers, his audience: the practicality of his “argument” and the proportionality of the creation, making it something that people could understand. He even considers what I read as a counterargument: “I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses.” And then, inexplicably, Victor, to this point a good, slow reader of his work, taking care to focus on the rhetorical effects of his argument and consider its implications–inexplicably, Victor gives it up in an insight and works against these “intentions,” doing so in the name of “speed.” Slow reading and careful, rhetorical thinking are tossed aside for creating something faster and bigger.

Why, suddenly, the need for speed? And why should this negatively affect his judgment, his interpretation, his argument?

My own rewriting of Shelley’s novel, the way I want to read it, sees in Victor’s quick decision to opt for speed over clarity and complexity a cautionary tale that resonates to this day. I recognize this resonance in the fast company of technological invention, where we seem to have little time to think through what “multitude of reverses” might follow. And I think of its potential in any argument we might make, or not make, in response.

Victor, on my reading, is a writer and rhetorician. And he is, alas, not a terribly effective one. What does that make his creation, his creature?


Frankenstein: Intertextuality

We have seen that the complications–the layerings–of meaning in Frankenstein begin even before you finish the title: the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus.” This is where the intertextuality of the novel begins. (And it continues, as you know, with the epigraph taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Intertextuality can be defined as the presence in a literary text (in our case, the novel Frankenstein) of elements from other texts. That presence can be a direct or indirect quotation, an allusion, an implication, an echo–in some way, a previous text or story is forwarded into the text you are reading. In contemporary music terms–intertextuality is sampling. In  digital parlance: it might be viewed as the mashup.

For further reading on Prometheus:

“Hesiod and Plato on Prometheus.” An overview of the myth of Prometheus as evident in the classical sources of Hesiod and Plato, by the writer/blogger Neal Burton. Note that this extends the myth of Prometheus to the invention of the arts, most particularly the arts of discourse and reason, in Greek known by the word “logos.”

Plato’s Prometheus. Summary of Promethus myth, with links to Plato’s use of the myth in dialogues, including Plato’s “Protagoras.”

Another intertextual complication in the novel:

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

Other possible places to go with the idea of intertextuality (that is, dealing with the amalgam-like quality of the novel, the recognition that there are multiple layers in the novel): Dante, the author’s introduction, Paradise Lost, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” medieval science. Lots of places.

In the second project, you are pursuing a close (slow) reading of key parts of the novel; but you will still be making an argument–there is a problem of some sort that you are exploring and (in your thesis) attempt to respond to and resolve. You can think of the problem/response in this way:

Many people tend to think of Frankenstein in simple terms, as a story about ______; however, there is a more complex story suggested by the intertext–a complexity that I read as important in the larger significance of Frankenstein as a novel about _______.

A link to the full poem of “Mutability.” And another, different poem also titled “Mutability” by the same poet.

Some ‘machines’ you might find useful in your intertextual reading of Frankenstein:

Electronic Paradise Lost (Milton, 1667).

Electronic Bible (from UVA’s Electronic Text Center)

Electronic Frankenstein.

And a final reminder, a resource useful for close reading, and for thinking more critically about keywords and terms in the reading–as well as in our writing–is the OED. It focuses on the inherent intertextuality in our language by highlighting the etymology and evolution of our words.

Project 1 Review

Our focal point in the first project was developing ethos through reflection. There are two places you can see this critical reflection emerge in an essay and think about, going into the next project, how you can continue to develop it: a strong set up of your argument, its clarity and complexity (a statement in brief form of your argument as a response to a problem, a focused and arguable thesis); strong coherence of that argument as it moves through your body paragraphs (the elaboration of the problem/response and your keywords or terms–in other words, how you support, complicate, and reiterate the argument through critical and personal reflection ).

Some examples to consider from a selection of writers from past classes; these are not the only way to do it, but they offer some good models for practice.

Clarity and Complexity of the Argument 

  • Keita: Note how the title initiates the “problem” that the first sentence also wraps into the given. By the end of the first paragraph, the key term “conversation” identifies the essay’s response to the problem.
  • Valerie: Example of a two paragraph set up, beginning with a narrative (placing the reader in a detail from the story), then pulling back for the statement of the problem and response.
Coherence and Development of Reflection 
  • Kassie: Note the development of reflection in the second paragraph (first body paragraph), spending time (not racing through nostalgically) a particular experience, then using a critical quotation to reiterate her key terms.
  • Jacob: a good example of using a critical quotation (first Birkerts, then Graff) in a body paragraph to elaborate and complicate the argument. Take a look at the second body paragraph where he uses Birkerts as part of his conversation–both to agree initially with him, but then to take his argument toward a different view of intellectual reading. This is a good example of what we will work on in the next project–forwarding someone else’s text.
  • Alicia offers a good example of developing the critical reflection to elaborate an example within a body paragraph that also supports/reiterates/complicates the argument and thesis. Paragraphs 3-5 are particularly strong–and notice the ways she uses the critics (Harris and Birkerts) to develop the personal reflection.
Conclusions [Arrangement]
We will be working on conclusions that go beyond merely repeating/restating what was already argued; instead, I want you to think of larger implications–give your reading something to think about beyond the essay, what follows from this new or different way of thinking.
  • Strong example from Jillian–notice how she moves out from her argument with a new image/scene, but in doing so reiterates the argument. This helps send the reader from her particular argument with thoughts of other places/implications for the argument.

Confusion [Language/Usage]

  • We are talking about complicating our critical and rhetoric–developing the layers of our argument. That sort of complication is a good thing in our writing. In terms of grammar and style, we also want to give some attention to clarifying aspects of our sentences that might be confusing. This is something for you to consider when editing. For some useful guidance on confusion in writing and grammar, in addition to Professor Harvey’s book,  see this section of the Guide to Grammar and Writing on Eliminating Confusion.

Frankenstein: It’s Complicated

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece ...

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you have never read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, you know the name. The image of the monster (perhaps of the scene when it comes to life, lightning crashing, the mad scientist screaming, “It’s alive!”). Those of you who have read the novel know–and for first time readers, it won’t take long to see–that such images from film don’t match up with the original novel.  [more on the history of Frankenstein in film]

We don’t get to the famous creation scene until 5 or 6 chapters in. And, of course, by then we know that Frankenstein is not the monster; it is, rather, the name of its creator–though could also be the monster, since it is unnamed, and technically the son. And a bit later in the reading, we wonder how the monster ever became the green hulking, inarticulate thing from the movies. Hint: the monster reads Paradise Lost.

A keyword I will be using as we discuss the novel and explore it with our second writing project in mind (we focus on intertextuality and close reading of text): complication. We will work on complicating our reading of this novel. That doesn’t mean we will make it difficult or harder than it needs to be. It means recognizing that the novel, as a text, is already a layer of complications–stories and images and other texts woven and folded in to its narrative. As we will see in reading Mary Shelley’s original draft of the novel, the layers of complication include the fact that she is not the only one reading and writing, since her husband Percy Shelley edits the manuscript that would be published in 1818 (the second edition is published in 1831 by Mary alone).

A literary term for this condition of the layering of writing is “intertextuality”; for more on that, consult this reference from the University of Wisconsin. As we think more critically about the literary significance of intertextuality in Frankenstein–a focus for our next writing project–we will do so in order to think further about the rhetorical effect of intertextuality in our writing: the fact that in the texts of our essays and projects we use and transform the texts of others. Joseph Harris refers to this as “forwarding,” our critical focal point for the project. So, we will be reading Frankenstein as critical readers, but also as student writers, seeing what we can learn from Shelley.

There are two marks of those complications (of text as woven materials) even before we begin the story. The first comes in the author’s introduction–where we learn of the complex origins of the story. And more to the point, it seems to me, we learn of the complication that our author, Mary Shelley, views her creation of the novel in very similar terms as those used by Frankenstein concerning his. She concludes the introduction bidding her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” The novel, apparently, is also a monster.

A second location of complication: the title page. Look at the intertextuality–the presence of one or more other texts within a text–we are confronted with before we even get past the title. As we will see, this is only the beginnings of a text that is woven by numerous connections, links, echoes, allusions to other texts.

The point I will be making in the face of this complication–of this multiplicity of texts and voices and narrators and stories–is that we need to do close reading not to find some sort of hidden meaning. I know that is what it often felt like in high school English. The problem of this novel–the problem that makes it compelling and engaging, it seems to me–is that there is too much meaning. It is hard to know what to do with it all.

By the way, speaking of this multiplicity, I wonder what you think of the Electronic Frankenstein site. It strikes me that it could help with the of kind layering of text that we start to get as early as the title page. One way to think of things–perhaps Shelley’s novel is a hypertext of sorts. Is it better to read the novel in digital form? At the same time, we can think about various “remediations” (remakes in other media, other versions) of the novel that are basic to this story–well before we get to the digital age. In particular, there is the incredibly rich film history (and before that even, theater history) in which Shelley’s story is, in a word, mashed up and retold. The first film is 1931, directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the ‘monster’. In addition to film, there are also variations on the story in print, such as The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein and The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein.  Another retelling and reimagining of the novel, from other perspectives, is the well-known hypertext novel (more on this later in the term) called Patchwork Girl.

Here is a recent article that notes some of these intertextual implications (the novel as creation myth), locating  the complications as early as the author’s introduction and in her biography: “Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?” And finally, an article about “frankenwords,” our tendency to create words out of hyrbrids, including words with “franken” as a prefix, such as reference to a “frankenstorm.”

All of these retellings and remediations, from print to film to digital, I would argue, in fact build upon, and are inspired by, an original story that is already, and at heart, about the idea of remediation and the power and influence of telling (which is to say, retelling) a story. Like I say, it’s complicated. And that’s a good thing.

Editing: An Introduction

Revision focuses on getting a handle on what your writing is about, where you want it to go. Generally speaking, revision is when you are still dealing with changes that could be as large as entire paragraphs, how your argument is organized, developed. It means asking questions such as: What else? What’s next? As we discussed with reference to Joseph Harris: you revise arguments, ideas, paragraphs, essays; you edit sentences. Revision is rethinking, rereading, expanding, developing; editing is tweaking. This is what we will be doing through Wednesday or Thursday of this week.

Revision and editing can sometimes blend. But for the sake of our efforts in this course, I suggest that editing is what you do toward the end of a project. Editing concerns how your essay communicates to a different set of eyes and ears than the ones which wrote it. How it reads to a reader who is not in your head. This is what you will be focusing on Friday.

Therefore, a good strategy for editing is to become more self-conscious about the sound and shape of your writing–something we take for granted. In order not to take it for granted (since you have been working on this essay and it probably makes sense to you), we need to defamiliarize it.

  • Read it aloud–hear the writing. Have a peer read it aloud or read it aloud yourself. Read it backwards, paragraph by paragraph or sentence by sentence: listening for places where the expression/communication (the how of the writing, the mechanics, the style) is not matching up with the idea. Usage errors would be one way expression and ideas get crossed.
    • Workshop: in your writing group, select a paragraph you want to focus on for editing–want to improve. Have someone else read your paragraph aloud. Then discuss for a few minutes what you hear and see–suggestions for what you might need to do or want to do with the paragraph.
  • More active than passive. Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method (from Revising Prose, 5th edition, Pearson 2007): one strategy to pay better attention to the way your “voice” is informed by the machinery of sentence length, verb (active vs passive), prepositions. These are not ‘errors’ but choices you make in presentation. We will be returning to this in later editing workshops. For today, let’s focus on the issue of crafting and clarifying the action of our sentences.

1]Circle the prepositions

2]Circle the “is” forms.

3]Find the action

4]Put this action in a simple (not compound) active verb.

5]Start fast–no slow windups. [the passive construction is often connected with too-conversational kinds of beginnings:

“One of the things that I think about reading is that reading is engaging for the mind.” vs.

 “Reading engages the mind.”

Or a sentence where the actor is buried or hidden, and therefore the action that is the focus of the sentence is also unclear.

“It was the main point by the author that I didn’t really agree written throughout the book that a reader reads alone in a room.”


“In The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts argues emphatically for reading as an act of solitude and privacy. I disagree for these reasons…” 

focus today on 1-5: the issue of using active verbs and active voice [also discussed effectively in Harvey, chapter 2, and in this section of The Style Academy on Active v. Passive voice ]

  • Some formal/presentational features to consider and not neglect at the end:
    • Title? I will be crushed to see an essay titled ‘paper #1’
    • introduction/conclusion: how do you bring the reader into your story? where do you leave the reader? A strategy to consider: start in with the narrative, or in the middle of an experience, before pulling back to more general set-up. And conclude by circling back to your beginning. [these are tricky–will continue to work on this in later workshops]
    • Transitions: are there effective signals through the essay, toward the beginning of each paragraph (usually first sentence), to lead the reader and identify the focus at each point?
    • Go back through the draft to recall/find sections you might have left unfinished, intending to get back to. [for example: a section that has something like “add quotation here”]
    • Have in mind a few of the mechanical/surface errorsyou tend to make and will need to clean up–punctuation, spelling, wrong words.
      • You can use this list of the 20 most common formal errors that can be edited–list provided by the Writing Center.
      • Become active in getting a better handle on the grammar/mechanics/sentence-level issues you need to work on. I will focus on a few in workshops; but the point is for you to get used to using a resource like the Guide to Grammar and Writing to practice and correct on your own.

Strategies for Revising

Strategies for Revising

In Chapter Five of Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts, Joseph Harris suggests several ways to think about revising based on the concepts he develops in earlier chapters: Coming to terms, Forwarding, Countering, and Taking an Approach. Below is a summary of the strategies he offers on pages 108-121.

Coming to Terms with a Draft: What’s Your Project?

Create an abstract of your draft: An abstract is a brief summary (usually around 150 words) that sometimes appears at the beginning of an academic article. Once you’ve finished an initial draft, try summing up the entire piece in just a few sentences, making sure to include all the most essential points. Doing this will help you identify key words that might help you focus your draft, and it will help you clarify the real purpose of your paper.

Create a sentence outline of your draft: In the margins of your draft, try to sum up each individual paragraph in one sentence (or two at most). The result will be a kind of outline that shows how you move from one point to another in your paper. Reading back through the summary sentences by themselves will give you a quick version of the draft you’ve written, and it should also point out moments where ideas aren’t connected or logical moves need to be strengthened.

Revising as Forwarding: What Works?

Highlight the strengths of your draft: Look for the moments that you consider to be the strongest in your paper and consider ways that you might bring those moments forward and give them greater emphasis. Also, think about how you might replicate those strong moments in other weaker spots in your draft.

Revising as Countering: What Else Might Be Said?

Identify questions that a reader might have: As you look back through your draft, think about moments where a reader might question you. This strategy might simply make you aware of spots where you need to go into further detail, or it might open up a whole new line of thought for you. As Harris describes it, this process is more than just playing “devil’s advocate.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to look for alternate lines of thinking your draft might open up.

Revising as Looking Ahead: What’s Next?

Look at your final paragraphs to see how you’ve expressed your main idea: When we’re drafting, it often takes several paragraphs (or pages …) for us to “warm up” and begin doing our best writing. Often, the clearest, most articulate statements of purpose occur at the end of a rough draft rather than at the beginning. Take advantage of that by looking at your final paragraphs to see if some of the language there can help you to shape and refocus the earlier parts of your draft.

Look ahead to see the implications of your draft: Once you’ve reached the end of an initial draft, you might think about what the implications of your ideas are. Your conclusion should suggest why your ideas matter and what they suggest for further study. Harris suggests the questions “What’s next?” and “So what?” That last question is particularly powerful. Why should your reader care about what you’ve said, and why does it matter? Those are tough questions, of course, but they’re an essential part of making an interesting point.


Track Changes: An example from my drafting and revision process, using Track Changes (an essay on the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau):


You can read the finished version of the essay here: “Ecology and Imagination: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Nature of Metonymy”


Rubric: Think of the rubric I will be using as a guideline/checklist for revision. It identifies important terms and characteristics of effective writing (logic, rhetoric, grammar). I will be looking for them; and so you can also look for them in your writing as you revise.


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