This isn’t the first post I’ve written asserting that reading can lead to being a better writer, but today I want to explore a specific reading technique called close reading and how these skills can translate into strong writing skills.
Now, there is nothing wrong with passive reading, or just reading straight through a text without actively engaging in it by asking questions. But there are readers out there that like to ask questions and explore the many possibilities a text holds rather than follow a given path that relies on passive assumptions made while following along with a text. This is called close reading. If you are a writer, you need to have a story that engages readers at the surface level for those that like to passively read as well as build a strong foundation and world for readers who engage in close reading to find the way the text you’ve created works.
In Dr. Edward Rocklin’s book, Performance Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare, he points to three specific questions for students to ask themselves when exploring Shakespeare’s text:
What is X?
What does X mean?
What does X do?
These three seemingly simple questions open up a world of possibility for readers who are trained to ask them of a text.
These three questions can be used to extract a varying level of depth from the text itself. Let’s take a look at the first few lines of Hamlet:
SCENE I. Elsinore. A platform before the castle.
FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO
Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
Long live the king!
You come most carefully upon your hour.
‘Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
Have you had quiet guard?
Not a mouse stirring.
For a surface reader, it seems as if there is a slightly hostile changing of the guard after an uneventful watch.
Now let’s ask the first questions: What is X? And in this case, we’ll make X Francisco. I can tell you that Francisco is a guard.
What does Francisco mean? Well, since he is a guard, he means that there is something worth guarding. Or, perhaps, that he is protecting the castle he is posted on.
What does Francisco do? He reacts poorly when his relief approaches, which is curious for a guard. If Francisco is on duty, shouldn’t he be the one alert to oncoming persons? Shouldn’t he, not Bernardo, be the one asking “who goes there?” It seems right away that Francisco is not doing his duty right, or perhaps that is is on edge and not paying attention to people physically approaching him – despite his watch being a quiet one, for he reports to Bernardo that “not a mouse” stirred on his watch. If his post at the castle was silent and he were attentive, he would have heard Bernardo and asked “who goes there” before Bernardo had the chance to, so something is obviously off with Francisco in these first few lines, which shows that something’s wrong in the state of Denmark from the opening of the play.
This line of questioning works at a deeper level too. For instance, I could ask what the question mark at the end of “Bernardo?” is. It’s a question, that’s for certain.
To answer the second question, a question means one is not sure of what is going on. When Francisco asks “Bernardo?” it means he is not sure it is Bernardo. That means he’s either expecting someone else to relieve him from his duty, he is unaware of the time, it is too dark to see who is coming, and/or he is expecting something else, in this case the ghost of Hamlet’s father (also named Hamlet, because Europe does things like this with its leaders).
And finally, our third question, what does the question do. It establishes that there are mysterious to be solved in Denmark, and that those in the place of security and protection are unsure of the world going on around them.
As a writer, it is your job to create a world in which these questions all make sense and connect to later actions within your text. Knowing these three simple questions and that they can be applied to a character, object, or even a punctuation mark, can help you enhance your text to please even the most critical of readers.