Analyzing a Text

What is a text?
A text can be any written material: a poem, story, novel, memoir, or essay, for example. A text also can be pictorial. Scholars can analyze advertisements, posters, paintings, illustrations, works of art.

Why analyze it?

  1. to explicate or give a close reading of the text
  2. to find a sub-text (or the meaning beneath the obvious meaning of the text)
  3. to bring background to bear upon the text (for example, if you know something about the author, you can understand the text in a deeper way; if you know something about the type of text it is, you can understand the text in a deeper way)
  4. to compare with other texts
  5. to place the text within a context (of the author's life, for example, or the historical period in which the text was created, or of a certain literary or artistic movement)
  6. to use the text to prove a larger thesis (about a writer's motivation, for example, or the themes that interested a certain group of writers at a certain time).
When you analyze a text, you give it meaning beyond what the text tells you directly.

What is analysis?
A text can be summarized: that is, you can extract the main points of an argument or condense the plot of a story. When you summarize, you essentially report about the contents of the text. But when you analyze a text, you ask questions about it so that you can offer an interpretation of the text.

Analysis is the breaking down of something into its component parts. When that something is a text, the reader is examining different aspects of the text. In a play, for example, the reader might look at the plot, the themes, the characters, the setting, the dialogue. In a poem, the reader might look at theme, imagery, language (word choice), voice (who is speaking - the poet or someone else), rhythm, structure.

How do you find a thesis?
Read the text more than once. What interests you about it? What seems odd, unexpected, troubling? Start writing down questions you might ask about the text. Evaluate the questions as you write, checking the ones that seem more interesting or those that relate to one another. Look for patterns among your questions; these patterns will help you to discover what interests you about the text. Your questions might help you find a thesis (that is, a idea that you can assert about the text and discuss by referring to specific details of the text).

Here are some general questions that you can use as a model to formulate specific questions about a specific text:

  1. What is the problem or question that motivates the author?
  2. From what context is the author writing?
  3. What assumptions does the author bring to the text?
  4. What argument is the author putting forth?
  5. What contradictions do you find in the text? Why are they there? How do they affect your understanding of the text?
  6. What evidence does the author use to support his or her assertions? Why?
  7. How is the text structured? How does the structure affect your understanding of the theme or argument?
  8. What rhetorical choices (concerning style or word choice, for example) does the author make? How do these choices help to convey the meaning of the text? In a play, for example you might ask how the author's choice of setting relates to the theme of the play. In a poem, you might ask how the voice (who is speaking--the poet or someone else) helps to convey the theme. You do not need to consider all rhetorical strategies in your own analysis.
  9. What do you think are the key passages in the text? Why are they important? How do they work with the rest of the text to convey the author's meaning?
  10. What assumptions do you bring to this text? To what extent has the author considered your needs as a reader?
Your analysis should be placed in some context of its own.
...Give your reader a sense of the significance of your analysis: How does your analysis enhance your reader's consideration of this text?

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