How to Make Sure You Are Analyzing Quotes

A very common mistake young writers make is to include a quote in your writing and then just leave it there to die, without examining it at all. Any time you include a quote, your next step is to break it down – to show EXACTLY what is important about those words in particular. The most common errors with quote misuse are:
1) Including a quote and then discussing the scene that surrounds it
2) Including an “important quote” that you found on some website, but it doesn’t really support your argument
3) Including a quote and then moving on entirely
4) Including a quote and then paraphrasing it, as though your reader doesn’t understand the meaning or context

The following is a five-step process suggested by the Luna Laliberte from the Writers’ Center at Rutgers which ensures that you are finding a quote that fits with your essay and are breaking it down thoroughly. If you wish to see the original page, with examples, CLICK HERE.

STEP ONE – WRITE THE QUOTE DOWN

Not only does this help solidify the quote in your mind, but it also allows you to do the next step…

STEP TWO – UNDERLINE THE KEY WORDS

Simply put, what are the most important words in this line? What grabs your attention? This could be a word choice, a repetition, a structural choice, or something unsaid. Don’t overdo it – the point here is to REDUCE the quote to its most important parts. On the other hand, if you don’t underline enough, you might not have much to say.

STEP THREE – PARAPHRASE AND DEFINE THE KEY WORDS/PHRASES

Here, you process and break down the important parts of the quote.

STEP FOUR – CONNECT WORDS TO ONE ANOTHER

Take the words you underlined, select one, write it, add a plus sign, then choose a second underlined word. Do this as many times as you need to (connecting the same starting word with different other words). See what jumps out with some of these pairings – you might not use all of them, but you might also find something that really stands out. A pattern. A contradiction. A shift.

STEP FIVE – CONNECT THE TERMS BACK TO THE QUOTE, AND TO YOUR MAIN POINT

Here is where the battle is lost or won. Now you have a lot of TEXT-SPECIFIC observations. If you aren’t using them to prove your initial point (or what’s more, your thesis), then this might feel like a good, but confusing and rootless close reading exercise. To quote Ms. Laliberte: “Think about what the author is conveying here. Think about the main idea you, as a reader, are supposed to get from this quote. You can move from here to write about this quote in the context of your thesis. How does this defend or contradict your argument? What main idea is conveyed that also applies to your thesis?”

AN EXAMPLE (STEPS 1-4)

Presume that this quote work is in support of an analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” that argues the following thesis: Poe uses sensory imagery to create tension in this story to warn about the dangers of refusing to acknowledge your flaws.

Step one: Blue
Step two: Green
Step three: Pink
Step four: Red

ANALYSIS (STEP 5)
In this moment, the narrator begins to realize how corrupt Roderick Usher is, and begins to distance himself from his friend. Poe contrasts words that suggest quickness (“No sooner,” “at the moment,”) with words that connote a longer echoing (“clangorous,” “reverberation”) to suggest that the tone of the moment has changed, and that the narrator is learning about something long-lasting. He reinforces this echoing by shifting from a quicker sentence at the start of the scene to a longer description that carries a list of five adjectives to describe the reverberation. Poe suggests the tone grows ominous through the use of words that imply heaviness, like “shield” and “clangorous,” as well as providing a series of words that suggest contrast – “at the moment” makes the sound appear sudden – and he describes the metallic sound using two metals of contrasting color and value.

WHOA! LOOK AT AT THIS TEXT-SPECIFIC ANALYSIS!!! And all of it supports that initial point (the first sentence). In every case, the analysis goes further than indicating a single loaded word, and explains exactly what is significant about that part of the quote.

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