Analyzing a text means reading carefully and critically to figure out how and why it is written. Authors make specific choices for specific reasons to send a particular message to the reader. Looking at the choices an author makes in his or her diction, themes, motifs, use of symbols, and so on, a reader is looking to determine the author’s message, evaluate the author’s choices, and explain their significance on the text as a whole. Analysis means figuring out the author’s message, examining how it is delivered to the audience, and considering why the author chose to deliver it in that manner.
When you are analyzing a text, it is important to remember that topic, main idea, and theme are not synonymous. A text will have a topic (the subject, or what it’s about), and from that topic the author will present his or her main idea (the author’s interpretation of or message about the topic). The topic sentence of a paragraph (usually the first sentence) is generally where the main idea can be found or, if the selection is longer, the main idea may be located in the thesis statement (usually at the end of the introduction paragraph). Occasionally, the main idea can be found at the end of a paragraph or even in the middle. As an active reader, you should identify the sentence that states the central point of the paragraph, regardless of where it is located. And remember that the main idea may be implied and not explicitly stated, meaning you will have to use your powers of inference to determine the main idea.
Theme is the term for the main idea in a piece of literature, like a novel, play, or short story. While the topic and main idea are generally pretty clear from the beginning, authors may develop their theme over a longer period of time, weaving it through their story and allowing their characters to develop in a way that allows the theme to unfold through their actions. The theme won’t be found in a particular paragraph or sentence, but instead be a message you should be able to identify by the time you finish reading the whole text.
All authors write with a purpose or reason. To figure out an author’s purpose, an active reader must figure out why a passage was written. There are four main purposes for writing: to describe, to inform or explain, to persuade, or to entertain. If a passage is full of of details and description, the author’s purpose was probably to describe something to his or her readers. If the passage is full of facts about a subject or gives step-by-step instructions about how to do something, it is probably informative writing. If the author is trying to convince a reader to do something, buy something, or believe something, it is probably an example of persuasive writing. And if an author is telling an enjoyable, engaging story that maybe teaches a moral or a lesson, chances are they are writing to entertain.
To determine an author’s purpose, you may have to infer as the text may not state, “And I am writing this in order to inform you.” When you infer the author’s purpose, you use textual clues to lead you to your conclusion. So consider those textual clues that led you to your determination. Was it what the author said? How did the author present the material? What point of view did the author take? All these hints led you to your conclusion about the author’s purpose.
Authors must also determine what point of view or perspective from which they are going to write. This goes beyond first-person, second-person, or third-person voice, but requires analysis of how an author looks at and presents a topic or ideas to the audience. To determine an author’s viewpoint, as you read ask yourself: What opinions, if any, are present? What do I know about this author? Has he or she had experiences that may make them an expert on this subject? What is the diction? How do those words make me feel as a reader? What evidence does the author use to make his or her point? What does that evidence convince me of? Might a different author have a different point of view? What is the author’s purpose? Studying the author’s main idea, diction, choice of facts or evidence to present, the support they use, and their purpose will help you determine the author’s point of view.
Authors may use different types of statements in their writing, and it is important to remember that not all statements are created equal. Just because an author makes a statement does not make that statement true, and as a critical reader it is important to be able to distinguish between several different types of statements.
Fact vs. Opinion
A fact is something that is grounded in verifiable truth, something that can be proven. Facts are generally widely accepted by society as being true. An opinion is based on judgment and personal belief. Not everyone will agree with an opinion, and opinions may or may not be widely accepted by society as a whole. It is important to be able to discern fact from opinion in a text. If authors are supposed to be persuading you, for example, but all they use are their opinions to support their claims, it will not necessarily be effective persuasion, especially if you have a different opinion than the authors. Sometimes opinions are masquerading as facts. Be sure to check the validity of the “facts” being presented—can they or have they been proven? By whom? If not by a trustworthy source, it may not be a trustworthy fact.
Observations, Assumptions, and Conclusions
Authors may include their own observations, assumptions, and conclusions in their writing. This is fine as long as you are aware that these may not be provable or accurate statements.
Observations may be comments an author makes about a topic, expressing his or her own feelings based on his or her own experiences. Observations may be presented in a first-person voice so that you know it’s the author stating it, but they may also be included under the guise of “fact,” so make sure to test the statement: is this provable and grounded in truth (fact) or simply a comment made by the author based on opinion (observation)?
Assumptions are points an author presents that he or she doesn’t even try to prove as credible; the author simply states the point as being true and assumes the reader will construe it the same way. This can be a slippery slope for authors and must be carefully evaluated by critical readers. If an assumption made by an author is false, then the whole argument based on that assumption is false and the argument falls apart and is ineffective. Just because an assumption is made without evidence to back it up does not necessarily make it a false assumption, however, so you have to carefully evaluate on a case by case basis.
Conclusions are the opinion, judgment, or position reached after considering the evidence. Critical readers must evaluate authors’ conclusions to see if they are logical and make sense based on the readers’ experience and understanding. Readers may come to a different conclusion than an author.
Understanding the author’s purpose and intended audience will help you be a critical reader. Here are some things about authors that you need to keep in mind when reading their work.
Different authors have different styles. Style refers to the way an author uses words to achieve his or her purpose for his or her intended audience. Examining an author’s diction, sentence structure, organizational pattern, tone, and use of figurative language can give insight to that author’s style.
Analyzing an author’s structure means examining how the text is organized. From sentence structure to paragraph organization, structure includes how the information is organized overall, paragraph by paragraph, and even sentence by sentence. Some common structural patterns include: main idea then details, details then main idea, chronological sequencing, problem/solution, cause/effect, and compare/contrast. The structure may also be one heavy on details and imagery or directions, like a “how-to” text.
Mood refers to the “atmosphere” an author creates in his or her work by using certain diction that evokes feelings in the reader. When you are analyzing mood, consider the author’s word choice and ask yourself how these words make you feel as a reader. Then think about why this author might be trying to create this particular mood for the the reader. How does it serve his or her purpose?
Tone refers to the attitude a writer has toward a particular subject, character, or audience. An author’s tone is created by his or her diction and might make the author seem sarcastic, critical, compassionate, or gloomy. Tone can affect an author’s perceived sincerity in writing so it is important to be able to identify tone and to understand how and why the author has created this tone. There may also be shifts in tone throughout a text. A critical reader should be aware of those shifts and consider why they are made.
All authors, and readers, come to the table with a level of bias. Bias just means a partiality or preference for one thing over another. Bias has a negative connotation because it is often perceived to be an unfair preference or someone showing favoritism, but bias is really a neutral word. It is when the bias takes action in the form of prejudice that it becomes a negative thing. But as a critical reader, it is important to be able to identify an author’s bias and to analyze whether it affects the author’s presentation of the argument or topic. Then question whether you share the same bias as the author, or if his or her bias offends you as a reader.
Authors purposefully use literary and argumentative techniques to connect with their readers. As a critical reader, it is important that you can identify those techniques and analyze their effectiveness. These techniques may be used to make connections among and distinctions between ideas or events in one text or across more than one text.
Word choice, or diction, refers to the words an author chooses to use in his or her writing. Authors choose words based on their audience and purpose in order to create a particular tone and mood for the reader. Because of words’ connotation (emotional meaning), different words have different levels of impact even if they mean almost the same thing. An author is aware of the power of language and will choose words carefully to fit his or her needs.
For example, using figurative language as opposed to literal language may make a reader question the author’s motives—what is he or she really trying to say? Why doesn’t he or she just come out and say it? Using technical terms and specific vocabulary may confuse an audience that is not familiar with those terms and therefore narrow down the scope of audience who will be able to understand and appreciate the text.
We all select our words based on audience and purpose. When we are trying to convince our parents to let us stay out late with our friends, our word choice is probably both logical and emotional, while staying somewhat formal. When we are talking with our friends about what to do after school, the word choice will be more informal, probably contain some slang, and show no concern about being grammatically correct. When we are writing application letters to colleges or businesses, we use formal diction and elevated vocabulary to impress them with our intelligence and mastery of language. As a critical reader, being able to identify these word choices made by authors will help you better understand their intended audience and purpose.
Character development refers to the way a character (usually the main character) changes or grows over time in a story. Character development means the way the author creates a character who may start out one way at the beginning of the story but then changes in some important, fundamental way by the end of the story. These changes may be as a result of an internal or external struggle or conflict, the character’s interaction with another character, or some life-changing event or experience. Character development usually takes place over a period of time and it not instantaneous.
Rhetoric is the art of using language effectively to persuade or convince an audience to see things from a different perspective. Rhetoric targets logic, emotions, and an author’s sense of credibility with his or her reader. When you identify the use of rhetoric, you must also evaluate its effectiveness. Is the author convincing? What does he or she do that persuades you to consider things from the perspective that he or she is putting forth?
Satire is the use of sarcasm, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose or criticize another’s foolishness, stupidity, or vices. Satire is used to draw attention to these things, expose the ridiculousness, and encourage change. Although it can be taken negatively and be considered mockery, if you really analyze and understand the satire, it can be a powerful tool for change. Satire can be aimed at an individual, a group or organization, and even the government. Political cartoons are a form of satire.
Sarcasm is the use of irony to mock or make fun of someone or something. Sarcasm is usually a terse, cutting remark directed at someone or something that author considers ridiculous. Sarcasm can come from the author directly or can be delivered through a persona or character the author creates.
Irony in literature comes in three forms: verbal, situational, and dramatic.
Verbal irony happens when someone says something that is really contrary to the truth or the opposite of what they really mean or feel. For example, Jane is getting ready to leave the house to go hang out with her friends when she discovers her car has a flat tire. “Oh great!” she responds. Well, she doesn’t really think that’s great; in fact, it stinks because it’s going to cost her time with her friends to get her tire changed. What she said was not what might be expected, but it is meant ironically.
Situational irony occurs when the outcome of a situation is different from what might be expected. For example, a doctor who takes an oath to save lives becomes a serial killer and takes lives.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters do not. Think of horror movies; the audience always knows it’s never a good idea for the teenagers whose car broke down on a dark, deserted back road to walk to the dark farmhouse up the hill. Yet the characters always think it’s a fine idea. And end up buried in the backyard.
Regardless of the type, it is important to be aware of an author’s use of irony and to know that he or she is not presenting something in a literal way.
Exaggeration and Understatement
Exaggeration is an overstatement or amplification to make something seem worse or more dire than it actually is. For example, “I was so cold I was sneezing snowflakes.” Probably not. But we get the sense that the speaker was very cold.
Understatement is just the opposite of exaggeration; instead of giving too much emphasis, not enough magnification is given, making the situation seem unimportant or trivial when it is actually quite noteworthy. For example, a huge rainstorm moves into an area, dumping large amounts of rain and flooding city streets. Citizens note, “It’s a little damp out there today.” With massive flooding taking place, this is an example of understatement—it’s a little more than “damp.”
As a critical reader, it is important to analyze an author’s use of evidence. How does the author use evidence? Does the author cite his or her sources? Are those sources ones you have heard of? Are they credible? If the author does not use credible evidence (or any evidence at all), then as a reader you should be vary wary.
An analogy is a comparison between two things in order to explain or clarify a concept. In an analogy, a comparison is made so that the reader can understand something unknown or unfamiliar by comparing it to something with which the reader is familiar or knows well. Some analogies are similes or metaphors, some use idioms, and some create hyperbole. They can be used to draw similarities between things or to show distinct differences.
Here are some examples of analogies:
“Jessica found her little brother as annoying as nails on a chalkboard.” That high-pitched screeching noise is pretty annoying, so we can get a better sense of just how annoying Jessica finds her brother to be.
“I’ll die of embarrassment if the teacher calls on me to read aloud.” This probably won’t literally kill you, but you might get so nervous when you have to do public speaking that your heart races and your palms sweat and you feel like you might die.
“She was as quiet as a mouse as she hid during a game of hide-and-go-seek.” This simile shows how little noise she was making.
“Finding my lost button in this carpet is like trying to find a needle in a haystack!” This comparison helps show the difficulty of the task.
One argumentative technique is for an author to make comparisons and connections between texts or to reference another work in his or her piece. In this way, the author is comparing ideas and illustrating to the reader the similarities and/or differences between the texts.
In a testing environment, you will encounter comparison questions for passages that are similar in theme or main idea and you may be asked to evaluate the similarities or differences between them. For example, “The author of passage B would argue that the author of passage A misunderstands the concept of xyz when he claims
____.” In this way, you are being asked to compare the texts and the authors’ messages or claims within those texts.
You might also be able to analyze and evaluate multiple texts by putting them into categories. Identifying the similarities and connections between individuals, ideas, or events in multiple texts helps you organize and categorize them so that you can show in what ways they are related, even if they are from different authors or genres.