Five steps to analyse complex texts

Five steps to analyse complex texts

This week, Insight writer and English teacher Leon Furze offers his tips and tricks on how to make the analysis of complex texts easier.

As you move through middle years and into senior, the texts you study will become more and more complex. Complex texts might come in the form of novels, films, collections of poetry or short stories, or a variety of other text types.

This five-step process will guide you through reading and annotating your text. It will also offer advice on how to organise your thoughts in a document you can keep updating that will help you to ultimately analyse the text based on your deep knowledge of it.


1. Read the text!

It goes without saying that to be able to analyse a complex text, you need to read it first. If you have the time, you should really read it more than once.

While you read, keep an eye out for anything you think is important. At this stage, that could be anything at all: interesting words, phrases and quotes, information about characters, emerging themes, symbols and so on. Read with a pencil or some sticky notes and annotate as you go. If you have no idea what is happening, write down questions! At this stage, it’s about gathering as much information on the text as possible before discussing it in more depth in class.

Reading is the most important step because it allows you to create your own interpretation of the text: ultimately, that’s what will pay off in the end.


2. Organise and refine your notes

Once you’ve read and annotated the text, it’s time to go back through and organise those notes. First of all, you might find it handy to write up your notes in chronological order. If the book has chapters, record the chapter numbers in a blank document. Go through the book again, copying out quotes and notes from your first reading, from the first page to the last. You might also notice a few extra things to add in.

Next, create one document for all of your notes on the text and include subheadings such as ‘Characters’, ‘Themes’, ‘Settings’, ‘Language’ and ‘Context’. Go through your chronological notes document and copy/paste your original notes into the appropriate sections under your new subheadings. You might find that some quotes fit in more than one place – that’s fine!


3. Expand your notes

Now is the time to start working on a broader understanding of the text. Up until now, it’s been all about your own reading. That’s the most important thing in analysing a text, but it’s also useful to have other perspectives. As you study the text in class, add notes into the relevant sections in your text file. Once it’s all set up, that should be pretty easy. You can also add to your text file from study guides, watching clips online that explain the text or discussions with other students.


4. Write your own topics

At the end of the day, you’ll have a chance to do something with all these notes. Generally, that will mean writing either an analytical essay or a creative response.

A great step to help you start to analyse complex texts is to write your own topics focusing on the characters, ideas, views and values in the text. Read through your text file and identify some key points, then draw on those to write a few questions. This will help you to get into the mind of the teacher and predict the kinds of analytical topics you might face.


5. Use the quotes in your text file to structure your responses

You should have a wealth of information sitting in your text file by the end. Your original thoughts on the text, chapter-by-chapter or page-by-page, will have been arranged into some sort of order. You will have sections on characters, themes, settings and any other relevant information. You will have added to the text file by gathering information and ideas from things your teacher has said, from study guides and from other students, and you will have written out your own topics.

Finally, it will be time to take all of that knowledge and do something with it. Whether you choose your own topic or are given one, chances are you’ll have relevant material covered in your text file. Annotate the topic, identifying key words and phrases. Match them up with the quotes in your text file to form arguments, and use them to write an essay that truly shows how confident you are with the text.


This process isn’t easy – there are no shortcuts here! There’s no magic trick to analysing a complex text: as the phrase suggests, these texts are complex. But when it comes to writing text responses, it’s always best to use your own knowledge, beginning with your own interpretation and reading of the text. If you follow these five steps and commit to building your understanding of the text, you’ll find that analysing a complex text becomes much more achievable.


Looking for a resource that helps you build your writing skills? Insight’s Guide to Writing: A student toolkit is aimed at middle-years students and designed to equip them with the tools they need to become capable and confident writers.

Guide to Writing: A student toolkit will be available in mid-2021 and is produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.


Photo credit: ALEXEY GRIGOREV/shutterstock

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