The novel, as the most widely read form of written fiction today, is a key part of the English curriculum, and you’re going to read a lot of them across your schooling years. While it may seem difficult to do a ‘close study’ of one, it is a process which can be strategised and planned for.
In this guide, we’ll help you undertake a close study of a novel in 5 steps!
So, what are you waiting for? Let’s dive in.
What makes a good close study of a novel?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘close study of a novel’ before, but might not exactly be sure of what it means.
A great close study of a novel is a study of a text which goes beyond description, summation, and even analysis into gaining a sophisticated understanding of a deeper understanding of the text as a whole.
Knowing the plot, characters, and being able to name a few of the themes is like having a quick look under the hood of a car, while a successful close study of a novel is learning how the parts work together, and what their functions are.
Step 1: Do some background research
It’s a good idea to do some background research for your novel before you start reading it.
The most important things to know when approaching a new novel for study are the:
- Some information about its context
It’s useful to have an idea of where and when the novel was published, as this will guide your expectations on the kind of language being used and your understanding of the ideas being presented.
These are things you can work out by reading the blurb in class, but it’s good to check you have some idea of what to expect before you jump in.
It’s also useful, to find out if you can, what texts you’ll be studying ahead of time, so you can start reading, and understand the focus of your study before you begin.
This could mean your class is focussing on a particular theme within the text or examining it in relation to a particular genre, and so, you know what you’re looking out for.
Step 2: Consider annotating and alternative mediums
Annotating means marking up the novel with a pen or pencil, underlining or highlighting important parts and making notes as you go.
It’s a useful practice to get into, as becoming used to annotating means you’re engaging with the text critically as you go along.
They can be as rough as you want, and it’s useful to mark parts of a text which stand out to you or which you think might be significant, even if it’s not clear why, or you don’t know how to express it yet.
Something else you may wish to consider is alternate mediums for reading your book. While if you’re studying it, you can’t substitute reading the book one way or another, but you may wish to get access to an audiobook copy of your book.
Listening to an audiobook regularly will speed up your understanding of the plot and characters, as well as get you used to the way language is used in the novel, particularly if you have difficulty with longer texts.
Step 3: Read and reread your novel
It’s useful to plan the reading of a novel. This might be done in day-by-day (fifteen pages could work well!) or weekly, as long as you give yourself sufficient time to prepare for assessments.
Depending on the length of chapters in a text, you may wish to plan your reading with regards to them.
However, another thing that is good to develop in your reading practice is rereading. This is a very important part of getting a strong sense of how a book together, as the first time we read a book, our focus is on the plot and characters, which are essential, but a close study calls for you to go deeper.
When we reread, our understanding of the deeper meanings of a work becomes stronger because we’re thinking about it more, obviously, but also, we know what is going to take place and how the conclusion is going to be arrived at, which frees us up to sit with the novel’s complexities.
This might seem like a chore, but it’s a useful skill to practice, particularly as you approach your senior years.
Step 4: Make notes using TEA tables
It’s important that you’re assembling your thoughts, ideas, and knowledge about a text as you go on.
This could include information on characters, the development of the plot, details on themes which emerge, and TEA tables.
A TEA table is a very useful skill which allows you to collect your analyses of a particular text.
You do so by quoting the part of text you’re analysing, naming what technique it uses, and analysing the effect of the use of that technique.
As an example, here is one written for a sentence from The Great Gatsby, which uses a simile to characterise a character called Daisy:
By compiling TEA tables (you may wish to do so to collect the key excerpts of particular chapters, or organise by theme, for instance) you can develop the habit of analysing literary techniques and have your ideas recorded conveniently.
It also helps to practise this kind of analysis, as it’ll come more naturally to you as you read.
Like annotations, these tables will be a lasting recording of your knowledge, and when you are assessed on the text at the end of the year, you’ll have a collection of useful notes on the text.
For more information on how to use TEA tables, check out our guide here.
Step 5: Conduct in-depth research of the context
No matter if your text is a century-old classic or a Young Adult novel that only came out recently, it’s almost definite that there will be resources for understanding it on the Internet.
Researching is useful for understanding contextual detail and background for your novel, as well as a way to accelerate your analysis.
Beyond our guides on Art of Smart, there’s:
- Genius, which allows its users to suggest analyses for novels on a chapter-by-chapter basis, provided they are in the public domain
- LitCharts, which collects an impressive amount of information about texts, including ones which have only recently been released, and delivers it using graphics and accessible language.
Keep in mind: These are additions to your study, and it’s very, very obvious when a student has only read these websites rather than the text itself.
A useful research tactic is to go to your text’s Wikipedia page – the sources often lead to great resources and other work about texts.
Sometimes useful information about your text can come from surprising places. If your author has done interviews about your work, these can help you direct your attention to the things you should look out for within your text, for example.
As well as making assessments about a novel, published reviews often contextualise texts, and can give you valuable vocabulary words to analyse your texts with.
Gaining the knowledge to successfully show what you’ve learned from a close study of a novel is a long process, and you could be given a variety of different kinds of assessments at the end of a close study.
However, in terms of qualities that make for a great response for a close study assessment, keep in mind the following:
Tip #1: Go deeper than the plot and characters of the text
This can be applied to any text, but the length and complexity of novels means it can be easy to get stuck describing its plot and characters.
While it shows you’ve read the text, for a close study, what your teachers are looking for are the demonstration of your understanding of its themes and concepts.
Tip #2: Think about the question
Assuming you have an essay or an exam, questions on novels generally indicate at a particular part of a novel’s themes.
This is why it’s important you understand the novel at a deep level – only preparing how to discuss morality, for instance, in your study of Of Mice and Men will not work out well if your examination has a question which asks you to talk about power.
Tip #3: Stay focussed
While it’s important to understand the novel’s different elements, don’t try and tackle all of them in one assessment.
Assuming you’ve answered the question, you’re not marked on what you could have included in your assessment, but what you have.
That’s why it makes sense to think about what portions of your novel are the most relevant to show your knowledge of at a deep level, rather than attempting to cover everything.
While a close study of a novel might seem intimidating at first, hopefully you have now gained some knowledge of how you can strategise for the best results!
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Cameron Croese is a qualified English teacher, who has a Bachelor of Education (Secondary) / Bachelor of Arts (English) from Macquarie University and is currently undertaking a Masters of Education in Melbourne. A long-time Art of Smart coach, Cameron has supported over 60 students from Years 7 to 12! When not studying, Cameron is an avid writer, having won several awards for short stories, including the Alan Marshall Short Story Award.