Print or Textual Analysis: What you Read


In a painting by Russian artist Olga Rozanova (1886–1918), the subject, “Man on the Street,” is presented through cool colors, fragmented lines, distorted perspective.
Image 2.5: (Credit: “Man on the Street (Analysis of Volumes)” by Olga Rozanova from Wikimedia Commons.)

Consider the subject of this painting, Man on the Street, by Russian artist Olga Rozanova (1886–1918). Now, consider the way the subject is presented: cool colors, fragmented lines, distorted perspective. What is the artist saying about the man on the street by presenting him in this way? As soon as you begin to answer this question, you are analyzing a visual text. When you read a story, you might ask the following questions: Why does this character act this way? How would the story be different if it were set in another time or place? What is the author saying about life in general? How does the author make these points? When you begin to answer these questions about a work of fiction or literary nonfiction, you are analyzing a literary text.

In the real world, you are surrounded by text—both visual and print. It appears in media, advertising, and even text messages. Often, text is not one-dimensional in the sense that words and the ways in which they are used or arranged can have different meanings depending on the relationship between the text and the reader. In such cases, a text is open to analysis and interpretation. Usually, there is no one right way to analyze and interpret a text; readers, like viewers, may understand elements in different ways and draw different conclusions.

Whatever they are, however, will be the result of reading critically: examining parts of the text as they relate to the whole, supporting ideas with evidence, and drawing conclusions on the basis of analysis.

The practice of analysis will benefit you in several ways. It can help you enter an ongoing conversation with a new and fresh perspective. It also can help you understand meaning beyond the surface of a text—including historical contexts and cultures, new approaches to thinking, and new knowledge.

Although the word text tends to imply words, writing, or books, virtually all works created by human beings can be considered texts that are open to analysis—films, plays, music and dance performances, exhibits, paintings, photographs, sculptures, advertisements, artifacts, buildings, and even whole cultures. In this chapter, you will focus on the analysis of print texts.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define key terms and organizational patterns of textual analysis.
  • Explain how genre conventions are shaped by purpose, culture, and expectation.

As a genre—or literary category in which works feature similar forms, styles, or subject matter—textual analysis is less of a genre in itself and more of an exploration and interpretation of other genres. That is, textual analysis is explanatory and interpretive. When you receive an assignment to analyze a text, you focus on the elements that give it meaning. Usually, your instructor will assign a specific writing task: to analyze and explain certain aspects of a text, to compare or contrast certain elements within a single text or in two or more texts, or to relate certain text elements to historical context or current events (as student writer Gwyn Garrison has done in the Annotated Student Sample). These writing tasks thus explore genre characteristics of fiction, drama, poetry, literary nonfiction, film, and other forms of literary language.

When you write a textual analysis, ask yourself questions such as these:

  • In what ways can this text be read?
  • What are some different ways of reading it?
  • Which reading makes the most sense to me?
  • Which passages in the text support this reading?
  • Whom does my analysis need to convince? (Who is my audience?)

Textual Analysis and Interpretive Communities

Language & Culture Lens

How you read and analyze a text depends on who you are. Who you are depends on the influences that have shaped you or the communities to which you belong. Everyone belongs to various communities: families, social and economic groups (e.g., students or teachers, middle or working class), organizations (e.g., Democratic or Republican Party, Masons, Habitat for Humanity), geographic locales (e.g., rural or urban, north or south), and institutions (e.g., school, church, fraternity). Your membership in one or more communities may determine how you view and respond to the world. The communities that influence you most are called interpretive communities; they influence the meaning you make of the world. People who belong to the same community may well have similar assumptions and, therefore, are likely to analyze texts in similar ways.

A group of students stand along a fence in front of a lake with a low bench in front of them.
Image 2.6  The individuals in this group of student volunteers and staff represent both similar and different cultural and interpretive communities. (Credit: “Alternative Spring Break (ASB) group from Rice University, volunteer at Mason Neck State Park” by Virginia State Parks from Wikimedia Commons used according to CC BY 2.0)

Before writing an interpretive or textual analysis essay, it is helpful to ask, Who am I when writing this piece? Be aware of your age, gender, race, ethnic identity, economic class, geographic location, educational level, or political or religious persuasion. Ask to what extent and for what purpose any of these identities emerge in your writing. Readers will examine the biases you may bring to your work, understanding that everyone views the world—and, consequently, texts—from their own vantage point.

College is, of course, a large interpretive community. The various smaller communities that exist within it are called disciplines: English, history, biology, business, art, and so on. Established ways of interpreting texts exist within disciplines. Often when you write a textual analysis, you will do so from the perspective of a traditional academic interpretive community or from the perspective of one who challenges that community.

Whether you deliberately identify yourself and any biases you might bring with you in your essay depends on the assignment you are given. Some assignments ask you to remove your personal perspective as much as possible from your writing, others ask that you acknowledge and explain it, and others fall somewhere in between.

Conventions of Textual Analysis

Key Terms

When asked to analyze or interpret a literary work, whether fiction or nonfiction, you will likely focus on some of these literary elements to explain how an author uses them to make meaning.


  • Alliteration: literary device consisting of repetition of initial consonant sounds. (“Away from the steamy sidewalk, the children sat in a circle.”)
  • Analysis: close examination and explanation of a text, supported by reasoning and evidence.
  • Antagonist: character or force opposing the main character (protagonist) in a story.
  • Climax: a moment of emotional or intellectual intensity or a point in the plot when one opposing force overcomes another, and the conflict is resolved.
  • Epiphany: flash of intuitive understanding by the narrator or a character in a story.
  • Figurative language: language that suggests special meanings or effects. Similes and metaphors are examples of figurative, rather than literal, language. (“She stands like a tree, solid and rooted.”)
  • Imagery: language that appeals to one (or more) of the five senses. (“The cicadas hummed nonstop all day, but never loud enough to dull the roar of the leaf blowers.)
  • Metaphor: direct comparison between two unlike things. (“She is a sly fox in her undercover work for the government.”)
  • Narrator: someone who tells a story. A character narrator is a part of the story, whereas an omniscient narrator tells a story about others.
  • Persona: mask to disguise or cover the author’s real self when presenting a story or other literary work.
  • Plot: sequence of events in a story or play.
  • Point of view: vantage point from which a story or event is perceived and told. The most frequently used points of view are first person and third person. In first person, the narrator is a character or observer in the story (fiction) or the author of it (nonfiction). In third person, the narrator has no part in the story other than telling it.
  • Protagonist: main character or hero in a story.
  • Rhyme: repetition of sounds, usually at the ends of lines in poems, but also occurring at other intervals in a line.
  • Rhythm: rise and fall of stressed sounds within sentences, paragraphs, and stanzas.
  • Simile: indirect comparison of unlike things using the word as or like. (“When he does undercover work, he is as sly as a fox.”)
  • Symbol: object that represents itself and something else at the same time. A red rose is both a rose of a certain color and a suggestion of something romantic.
  • Theme: meaning or thesis of a literary text.


Adapted from “Print or Textual Analysis: What You Read” from Writing Guide with Handbook by OpenStax and is used under a CC BY 4.0.

Adapted from “16.3: Glance at Genre: Print or Textual Analysis” from About Writing Guide with Handbook by OpenStax and is used under a CC BY 4.0.


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