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Reading like a writer – Reading prose thumb

Reading like a writer – Reading prose

Recently I ran a couple of workshops on the art of close reading, so for those of you who were unable to attend (and for those who did attend but would like a refresher) I’ve put together a two-part blog, looking first at an extract from a novel and then at a poem.

A close reading is simply a detailed analysis of a text, and it’s also a personal response to a text. There’s no ‘wrong’ way to read or respond to a piece of writing, so long as you can support your analysis with the text.

If you can close read a text, you have a valuable skillset. You won’t close read everything you ever read, but you’ll probably be a naturally more attentive and astute reader of everything you do read.

In the workshop we began by discussing the first 200 or so words from Andrea Barrett’s novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal. Barrett initially studied biology before turning to fiction writing, and this background is often apparent in her work. She regularly writes about scientists and scientific ideas, particularly nineteenth century botanists and naturalists.

Here’s the extract:

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (Flamingo Press, 1999)

‘He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders. A mild breeze, the smells of tar and copper. A few yards away the Narwhal loomed, but he was looking instead at the partial reflection trapped between hull and pilings. The way the planks wavered, the railing bent, the boom appeared then disappeared; the way the image filled the surface without concealing the complicated life below. He saw, beneath the transparent shadow, what his father had taught him to see: the schools of minnows, the eels and algae, the mussels burrowing into the silt; the diatoms and desmids and insect larvae sweeping past hydrazoans and infant snails. The oyster, his father once said, is impregnated by the dew; the pregnant shells give birth to pearls conceived from the sky. If the dew is pure, the pearls are brilliant; if cloudy, the pearls are dull. Far above him, but mirrored as well, long strands of cloud moved one way and gliding gulls another.

In the water the Narwhal sat solid and dark among the surrounding fleet. Everyone headed somewhere, Erasmus thought. England, Africa, California; stony islands alive with seals; the coast of Florida. Yet no one, among all those travelers, who might offer him advice.’

Although it’s just a tiny extract from a much longer novel, there’s a lot that can be analysed here in terms of Barrett’s writing style.

Here is a series of questions that you can ask yourself about any piece of fiction (and a lot of these will be applicable to other forms of writing too, including poetry, non-fiction and scripts). Some questions will be more fruitful than others, depending on your chosen text. 

Creative Writing students writing Reflective Commentaries and Creative Reading Commentaries will also find these questions helpful for thinking about their own writing and their chosen writer/text/movement for the CRC.


  • What happens in the extract? (In the extract only, not the rest of the piece.)
  • What do you think might happen next – are there any hints?
  • Who’s present? Are you introduced to any characters? How are they presented?
  • Who’s the narrator? (i.e. who is telling the story?) What’s the point of view? (It’s usually first or third person). 
  • If it’s first person, do they seem reliable? What makes you think they are or not?
  • Where’s it set? What kind of setting/place is it? What clues are there?
  • When is it? Present day? The near past/future? The distant past/future? How can you tell? Technology id often a big clue: telephones narrow the time to late nineteenth century onwards; iPads to the twenty first century onwards.
  • What’s the mood? Joyful or gloomy? Celebratory or foreboding? What makes you think this?
  • What’s the tone? e.g. sincere or sarcastic? What makes you think this.
  • What’s the register? e.g. formal or colloquial? What is it that determines the register (which word choices in particular)?
  • What kind of language is used? Simple or complex? Poetic or technical? Any dialect or unfamiliar words?
  • Is the language emotive? That is, is it trying to direct you towards a particular emotional response?
  • Are there any words you don’t understand? Look them up – there are plenty of free dictionaries online.
  • Is there any imagery? Are any of the five senses used?
  • Has the writer used any particular writing techniques? E.g. repetition, omission, metaphors, similes (N.B. A simile is a type of metaphor, one where the comparison being made between two things is explicit, e.g. my love is like a rose. A metaphor describes one thing as another. e.g. my love is a rose).
  • How is the writer using punctuation? What is the sentence construction like, e.g. short and simple, or long and convoluted?
  • What’s the rhythm like? Flowing and smooth or choppy and disjointed? What makes it feel like this?
  • What themes are being explored?
  • What’s not said? Is there any subtext or things that are only hinted at or implied?
  • How does the piece draw you in? Do you want to keep reading? Why?
  • Are there any other aspects of the text that strike you as memorable or interesting or noteworthy? 

Remember there’s no wrong way to read, so long as you can support your views with the text itself. If you want to develop your close reading skills, read the Andrea Barrett extract and then work through the questions. Feel free to post any thoughts you have below the blog. 

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Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie
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