A Lesson for Tomorrow: Writing Like Crime Scene Investigators

I cringed as I listened to a former student explain how her teacher grades discussion.

“You have to talk three times to even be graded,” she said, swirling the last inch of iced coffee in her plastic cup. “And you can’t ask questions. Questions show that you haven’t thought something through enough to talk about it.”

I’ve been in that kind of discussion before. It moves a mile a minute, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it moves at all. Students talk in circles, offering half-formed ideas that still need to percolate.

In my head, I played devil’s advocate with her teacher:

  • What if we didn’t “force” analysis right away?
  • What if we gave students more time to collect evidence and let it percolate?
  • What if we spent more time on the brink of discovery?

Donald Murray says, “The writing act begins with the collection of the raw material of writing, information that will be arranged into meaning by the act of writing.”

Writers begin by gathering evidence. Later, that evidence is “arranged into meaning.”

We know this. We’ve seen it before. It’s what happens, for example, on our favorite crime tv shows. The CSIs gather lots and lots and lots of evidence. Nobody knows what it means at first.

Nobody knows what they’re looking for–they’re simply trying to turn over every possible piece of evidence they can. And leaving behind a piece of evidence could be the difference between bringing the right and wrong person in. So they look for more.

In the world of crime investigators, the evidence comes first. Then the analysis. And so it is with writers.

So why do we sometimes expect our students to do the opposite?
The Lesson

On Friday, at the beginning of our literary analysis genre study, I asked my students to think like CSIs.

I asked them NOT to speculate about the meaning of x, but to focus on finding x. I asked them to look at the words, the line breaks, the punctuation of the poem as a CSI would look at a tissue, a pool of blood, some bed linens…thoroughly, indiscriminately, expectantly.

The table below shows the similarities between CSIs and writers:


A Crime Scene Investigator… An Analytical Essayist…
Reads the scene, using his powers of observation Reads the poem, taking in the music
Looks for obvious evidence first–a broken window, a damaged door, a pool of blood Notices things–a surprising simile, a word with a strong connotation, noticeable repetition
Forms a general first impression/theory Forms a general first impression about the text’s meaning
Takes photos of the scene and records sensory details Zooms in on specific lines and continues to jot down observations
Examines nearby rooms and spaces to see if they have related information Looks at how different sections of the text build from and talk back to one another
Surveys every inch to find even the smallest piece of evidence Goes over every inch of the text to find evidence that isn’t so obvious
Disregards evidence that is irrelevant or hearsay Disregards evidence that no longer supports the observation
Refines theory as more evidence is collected Refines theory about the poem’s meaning while continuing to read and collect more evidence

I projected a poem with which I was familiar but had never done a close reading of– “Feared Drowned” by Sharon Olds. I thought aloud as I searched for evidence myself, then invited students to help me find more.


The first thing I noticed was the numerous similes in the poem. We underlined those. Then we read them again and noticed that most of the similes compared something the speaker saw or felt to something in the ocean or on the beach. So we labeled this piece of evidence “similes–ocean diction.”

Then we tried to categorize the similes that did not fall under this category– “rocks stick out near shore like heads” and “towel like a widow’s shawl.” Students helped me decide that these pieces of evidence fit under the category of “similes–loss imagery.” We did not speculate as to why the writer had included so many similes or how she used similes to reinforce her theme)–we simply noticed and labelled them as precisely as we could.

We continued moving through the poem like this, noticing something, and then trying to put it into a category to keep it organized.

Later, students returned to their own poems with the task of collecting as much evidence as they could possibly find. I stressed collection over analysis. Then students met up in small writing groups with people who had chosen the same poem and shared their noticings.

Without the pressure of analysis, the classroom buzzed with a different energy as students approached the poems like investigators, circling back over lines to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.

Without the pressure of analysis hanging over them, I overheard a student say, “Ok. We have to speculate about what this means!”

Without the pressure of analysis hanging over us, we noticed something obvious: the alliterative ‘s’.

Without the pressure of analysis hanging over us, we noticed something NOT so obvious: the alliterative ‘w,’ a letter associated with question words (who, what, where), words we utter when we don’t have information we need, like the speaker who wonders where her husband is and who he has become when he returns.

I’m convinced that students will find the BEST evidence without the pressure of analysis hanging over them. And they may actually default to analysis when you tell them not to.

– Allison


  1. Dear Allison and Rebekah,
    I appreciate your useful, inspiring ideas. I am so glad that I stumbled upon your blog. There are times when I can’t find an old post, and I am wondering if there is an index or list of posts that I am not finding.
    Every time I go to your blog, I find something new, and I really do use it in class the next day!
    Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. We used to have a Blog Post Index but figured readers were using the searchable tags more. Per your request, we resurrected the old Blog Post Index and will complete it shortly. We hope this makes for a more efficient reading experience! Thanks again for your support.
      Allison & Rebekah

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