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Humanities Libertexts

1.3: Analyzing Texts

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  • When you respond to a text, you focus on your own view of text. Analyzing a text means reading through the writer’s eyes, seeking to understand the deeper, interwoven meanings layered within a text.  Analysis means explaining how the parts of text work together to create the meaning of the whole text. 

    When you can respond to AND analyze a text, you are doing Critical reading. Critical reading involves the reader in grappling with the text—interacting with it. At this point, you're ready to start writing about texts.


    Analyze the structure of the piece to understand how the text works

    Exploring a text’s structure may sound a little complicated, but it really isn’t. It means looking for how it’s been constructed or built, and how the structure supports the work the text is trying to do. The fancy literary terms for this are “form” and “function.” Form refers to the way the text is structured, while function refers to what it communicates to the reader.

    Consider these questions when thinking about structure:

    • What is the author’s main point? Describe this in your own words. Do they make the point successfully? Is the point held consistently throughout the text, or does it wander at any point?

    • How is the text organized? (Does it seem logical? Is it in time-related, chronological order? Does it skip around in time with flashbacks or flash-forwards? Does it return to the same themes throughout? Do the later parts of the text echo the beginning?)

    • Is it divided into obvious sections? Do the sections have headings, or are they just visually separated?

    • Does the author use comparison/contrast, explore cause and effect, or examine a process to present their ideas?

    • Is there a lot of detail and description in the text? Why does the text give these details?

    • How do the parts of text relate to each other?

    • Does the author do anything unusual* or unexpected with the text?


    Analyze the rhetoric and language of a text to understand if a text is effective

    Rhetoric (REH-torr-ick) is the study of how to write and speak effectively and persuasively. It is also the study of how arguments are formed and how language is used to achive a purpose. Use the following questions to help analyze as you assess the text’s purpose and the ways it makes its points. 

    • What is the author’s main purpose? Note that this is different that the text’s main idea. The text’s main idea refers to the central claim or thesis embedded in the text. The author’s purpose, however, refers to what they hope to accomplish. For example, a cookbook is assembled in order to share recipes and cooking methods. But perhaps the author also wanted to include recipes from indigenous peoples to make an argument that these traditions are threatened and need to be preserved. The text has one purpose, while the author has an additional aim for the work.
    • Is the author objective, or does he/she try to convince you to have a certain opinion? Why does the author try to persuade you to adopt this viewpoint? If the author is biased, does this interfere with the way you read and understand the text?

    • What information does the author provide to support the central idea? Making a list of each point will help you analyze. Hint: each paragraph should address one key point, and all paragraphs should relate to the text’s central idea.

    • What kind of evidence does the author use? Is it based more on fact or opinion, and do you feel those choices are effective? Where does this evidence come from? Are the sources authoritative and credible? 

    • Describe the tone in the piece. Is it friendly? Authoritative? Does it lecture? Is it biting or sarcastic? Does the author use simple language, or is it full of jargon? Does the language feel positive or negative? Point to aspects of the text that create the tone; spend some time examining these and considering how and why they work. 

    • Do you feel like the author knows who you are? Does the text seem to be aimed at readers like you or at a different audience? What assumptions does the author make about their audience? Would most people find these reasonable, acceptable, or accurate?

    • Does the text’s flow make sense? Is the line of reasoning logical? Are there any gaps? Are there any spots where you feel the reasoning is flawed in some way?

    • Does the author try to appeal to your emotions? Does the author use any controversial words in the headline or the article? Do these affect your reading or your interest?

    • Do you believe the author? Do you accept their thoughts and ideas? Why or why not?

    • Does the author use simple language that all readers understand? Or do they use language that contains complex language and jargon that may not be understood by all readers?

    • Do they do anything unusual with words or punctuation? 

    More on Word Choice

    Simple language can help make a text available to everyone. But some readers might be bored or frustrated by overly-simple language. Using more complex language allows a writer to add deeper layers of information and meaning to a text, and this can work if the audience is familiar with the language (or jargon) being used. But if they’re not, they may find the text confusing, irritating, or even impossible to understand.

    Jargon refers to language, abbreviations, or terms that are used by specific groups— typically those people involved in a profession. Using jargon within that group makes conversation simpler, and it works because everyone in the group knows the lingo. The problem with using jargon when writing is that if your reader has no idea of what those terms mean, you’ll lose them.

    Read this paragraph that relies heavily on jargon:

    • Those who experience sx of URI might consider visiting a PCP. This should happen ASAP with pyrexia >101, enlarged cervical nodes, purulent nares drainage, or tonsillar hypertrophy. Tx may include qid antibios, ASA, fluids, and a mucolytic.

    If you’re in a medical field, you probably understood that paragraph. Otherwise, it probably sounded like another language!

    Now read this translation in lay (non-jargon) terms:

    • Those who have cold symptoms might consider visiting their primary care provider. This should happen quickly if there is fever over 101, swollen glands in the neck, green or yellow drainage from the nose, or inflamed, swollen tonsils. Treatment may include antibiotics, aspirin, fluids, and medications designed to loosen phlegm and make it easier to cough.

    That’s quite a change, yes? It’s a good example of why we usually want to avoid jargon, only use it with an audience that understands it, or explain each term carefully as we use them.

    Sometimes writers play with spelling and punctuation to to create a certain sound or dialect within a text. Dialect is a language or language-sound that is known by and particular to a specific group of people or a specific geographical region. For example, think about how people define a sweet carbonated drink as “pop,” “soda,” or “Coke” depending on what part of the U.S. they live in.

    Consider this example from the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; it’s set in the south and written in words that create a distinct dialect:

    • “Reckon I have. Almost died first year I come to school and et them pecans—folks say he pizened ‘em and put ‘em over on the school side of the fence.”
    • Translation: “I suppose I have. I almost died the first year I came to school and ate those pecans. Folks say he [Mr. Radley] poisoned them and put them on the school’s side of the fence.”

    *Speaking of unusual texts, sometimes the author will do something unexpected with the text’s form in order to support its function. As an example, check out these examples from Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a novel that includes some extraordinary structures. 


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - Pages from Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves

    In the example shown to the right here, you can see some of the unusual ways Danielewski has arranged text on two of the pages. His book contains all sorts of different textual anomalies (something that deviates from the usual or standard approach); if you want to see more of them, go to Google and search for ‘House of Leaves’ and then ‘images.’ Throughout the text, his creativity with the textual layout echoes and supports what is happening within the story. It’s ridiculously cool, and if you’re curious about it, I recommend reading it. It’s a weird but worthwhile reading experience, and it brings home the idea of textual structure like nothing else can.

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