Once you are familiar with the catalog
of core arguments, you can use them as a way of quickly developing
a preliminary understanding of a revolutionary era text, even
if the language, syntax, concepts, and length of the piece seem
daunting at first. Use the structure of the text as a way to find
the author's specific arguments and overall position. In other
words, go beneath the hundreds of words to find the skeleton of
ideas embedded in the organization.
Skimming can be useful, not as a substitute for slow, close reading
but as a supplement to it. In fact, using the steps below to develop
a quick preliminary analysis of a complex and/or lengthy text
can take a lot of the pain out of the thorough reading of the
work. Once you have been able to sketch out a kind of map of the
arguments of the text and the way they are arranged, you can use
that map to guide your reading. Instead of finding yourself lost
in a vast wilderness of words, you know you have a trail to follow.
You can feel confidence as you move from one argument to the next,
knowing that you have already mastered some of its basic elements.
Look at the title.
You can often tell something about the rhetorical tactics of
the author and the kind of argument s/he intends to make simply
by reading the title. Paine was definitely signaling that he
would make a particular kind of argument when he called one
of his pamphlets "Common Sense." Of course, some informal
titles are assigned to documents by historians or other people
long after they have been written. Those titles, too, can provide
useful clues. Wouldn't you expect a different message in "The
Olive Branch Declaration," for example, than in "The
Declaration of Arms"?
Look at the opening and closing of the text.
Does the opening include language or ideas that connect to
any of the core arguments? There were fairly formal rules for
most types of writing in the eighteenth century, and many kinds
of texts were intended to offer a preliminary summary of what
is to come after. If the author has provided you with an outline
of the arguments of the text, be grateful for the gift and use
it as a map to find your way through the text. Each time you
encounter a new paragraph, see if you can determine which argument
the author is presenting. After paying close attention to the
opening, consider moving straight ahead to the closing to see
what, if any arguments, you find summarized there.
Look at the opening statement of each section.
If the document is relatively short, quickly read through
the opening sentence of each paragraph to see if any of the
key arguments appear. If you are dealing with a lengthier document,
look for clues that suggest that the author is leaving one argument
and moving on to another. The presence of a larger than usual
amount of white space can indicate such a move. However, if
there are no clear markers, scanning through the first phrases
or sentences of each new paragraph will help you identify new
arguments as you encounter them.
Look for key words and phrases that signal the presence of
Before (and after) reading through the text carefully, you
may find it useful to skim the work in order to get a preliminary
sense of its main arguments. As you cast your eyes over the
text, see if you notice the appearance or even recurrence of
words such as "slavery" or "natural law"
or "Enlightenment," for example. If you are viewing
a text using a web browser or a piece of word processing software
such as Word or WordPerfect, you can use the "Find"
function (sometimes listed under the "Edit" button)
to look for particular words in the text. Using "Find"
to search for a number of different phrases in a text might
lead you to discover that the terms "natural" or "divine"
or "slavery" never appear, but that "Englishmen"
comes up sixteen times and "constitution" makes twenty-three
appearances. That would send you well on your way to developing
an understanding of the text.
Look at the evidence used to support the arguments.
Are there a great many references to natural law philosophers,
to the Bible, or to classical authors such as Cicero and Seneca?
Each type of evidence is specifically tailored to illustrate
a particular argument. Texts that offer quotes as opening epigraphs
signal the nature of their main argument(s) at the outset. It
can also be particularly easy to track the sources used in documents
that include footnotes. But even when the references are not
designed to stand out from the text in this way, it is not difficult
to skim for names and quotations, or even to use the "Find"
tool to search for quotation marks
Consider the voice of the speaker.
As you go through a slower and more thorough reading of the
text, be sure to be listen carefully to the voice of the speaker.
Does s/he sound patient or impatient, logical or impassioned,
casual or formal, "common" or highly educated? Or
does the voice fluctuate from time to time? If so, can you determine
whether the voice changes as certain arguments are introduced,
and which voice seems to be most powerful or believable. An
effective rhetorician will choose a "voice" that will
allow him or her to persuade a particular audience about a particular
point or body of material. For an excellent example of a voice
that fluctuates in order to convey different kinds of messages
within a single text, see Paine's "Common Sense."
While the title and opening reassure the reader that Paine will
present a very reasonable and orderly -- yet down to earth --
set of comments, Paine never hesitates to become passionate
in order to inflame his readers when "emotional" issues
Related Resources on This Site:
A Rhetoric of Rights:
Investigating the History of Slavery in Early America:
Texts that Illustrate Typical Arguments and Techniques: