Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

by Francine Prose

Hardcover, 2006




Harper (2006), 288 pages


Before there were workshops and degrees, how did aspiring writers learn to write? By reading the work of their predecessors and contemporaries, says author and teacher Prose. Prose invites you on a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters. She reads the very best writers and discovers why their work has endured. She takes pleasure in the magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel; she is moved by the brilliant characterization in George Eliot's Middlemarch. She looks to John Le Carré for how to advance plot through dialogue, to Flannery O'Connor for the cunning use of the telling detail, and to James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield for clever examples of how to employ gesture to create character. She cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which literature is crafted.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member AlisonY
This is a book where as soon as I got to the end I wanted to go straight back to the beginning again. It's no use borrowing it from the library and giving it back (says she who's done just that); this is a book that you need to own, to read and re-read over and over and over again, and to cover with pencil notes in the margin and copious underlining.

This book is so good IT NEEDS CAPITAL SHOUTY LETTERS. It's a phenomenal read, whether you're a wannabe writer or simply an avid reader who's interested in learning more about what makes a great book great. Examining all aspects of writing from words to narration to dialogue and gestures, Prose ultimately concludes that there are no fixed rules to great writing, but very different, well-executed strategies and observances which we can learn best through quality reading.

For example, we learn how Heinrich von Kleist used little or no physical descriptions of his characters in his writing, yet they leap vividly in our imagination. He defines his characters by their actions, whereas Jane Austen by contrast defines hers through their thinking. Two very different writing strategies, both extremely effective.

I warn you that this book, should you choose to read it, will do your wish list no good at all. Many, many pieces of narrative from a wide variety of amazing authors are used to exemplify the various writing points being made, and they were all amazing. I was disappointed that I didn't get to read on to the next part of the story with all of them, and it was a fantastic introduction to many authors I hadn't heard of before, as well as other greats which I just haven't got to yet.

If you write fiction, this book needs to be within grabbing distance for your next bout of writer's block.

5 stars - meticulously researched and well explained, you'll read in a whole new way after reading this book.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Most "how-to-write" books fall into one of two categories; either they are a textbook style list of writing exercises or the emphasize the creativity aspect and suggest things like dream journals. This book, thankfully, falls in neither category.

Francine Prose uses this book to show and not tell us what good writing is. She divides the chapters into aspects of writing like sentences and paragraph breaks, but the real joy of this book are the fragments of novels liberally sprinkled through each chapter. From Scott Spencer to Gustave Flaubert and an especially liberal helping of Chekov, Prose gives example after example of what constitutes good writing.

I found this book more inspiring and helpful than any other book on creative writing I've read since Stephen King's "On Writing".
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LibraryThing member msbaba
I love reading, but I am not a creative writer. How to Read Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose, intrigued me when I saw it on the shelf in my local library, so I took it home and read it. After I finished, I promptly bought my own copy. This was a book I knew I would treasure and consult often, not to read it from cover to cover again, but to mine it repeatedly for what it reveals about how fine literature is crafted.

If you love any art form, it always helps to understand more about the craft behind it. That’s what this book did for me. Francine Prose must be a remarkable teacher. I’d love to experience her classes in person. Reading this book felt like I was sitting through a top-notch course on creative writing. I’ve always wanted to know more about the process of creative writing, but I was always too intimidated to try a creative writing course. Now, if I’d ever seen a course entitled “How to Read like a Writer,” I’d have knocked down the door to try to get in. But I didn’t have to, and you don’t have to either. Prose has transformed all her best lessons on teaching literature by example into this thoroughly enjoyable and accessible guide. She has packed it with probably close to two hundred examples taken from what must be a rich lifetime worth of reading literature closely. The author deftly explicates each example so the hidden craft is exposed.

Thank you Francine Prose! This was exactly what I wanted. I recommend it highly to other avid readers of literary classics and modern literary fiction—lovers of the art of using language well; this book will most assuredly improve your overall reading experience.
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LibraryThing member imyril
An interesting read that reminded me why I didn't pursue English Lit beyond A-level. A little bit like physics, whilst I'm capable, I don't particularly enjoy it. Unlike physics, I firmly believe that lit crit / appreciation is often subjective - Prose's examples did nothing to dissuade me of this.

I'm not a huge fan of Literature with a capital L - I enjoy storytelling - and I do believe good writing can be found outside its hallowed halls. I would have enjoyed this book more without the whiff of snobbery (at one point a work is 'at risk' of appearing to be magical realism - how awful for it - rather than a Work of Art). And for my sins, I have no intention of reading Chekhov.

However, Prose is an engaging writer and her passion for literature is infectious. Her basic points are sensible and well-made for readers seeking to get under the skin of their books and for writers aspiring to make their words work a little harder - even if, as she is at pains to point out in the closing chapter, great literature largely shows us that all rules are made to be broken as long as you're good enough to get away with it.
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LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Every now and then, I pick up books like this just in case it contains some important insight that will make my remaining years of reading that much more enjoyable. This book rapidly convinced me that I should be reading books rather than reading books about books. I'm sure there are great insights to someone patient enough to read the book carefully. I'm also sure that if I was trying to become a writer, this book would provide more valuable instruction than many other books on writing -- I really like the philosophy of learning to write by turning to the masters.

However, I gave up my dream of being a writer a long time ago, and the insight-to-page-count ratio wasn't high enough to make me want to keep reading this book as opposed to reading some fiction. So I'm back to fiction reading. Although as a result of this book, I'll try to read closer, I'll pay more attention to dialog (that was one of the more interesting chapters that I skimmed), and I'll likely add some works by Chekhov to my reading list.
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LibraryThing member PickledOnion42
In Reading Like a Writer Prose emphasises the importance of close reading, taking the reader on a journey through the author's techniques and the countless minute decisions the author must make while writing. Beginning at the level of the single word, she shows how revealing word choice can be, before progressively zooming out to focus on the sentence and then paragraph structure. She proceeds to take a further step back to examine various methods of narration, and then studies the formation of character and the development of dialogue. The book ends with a look at the importance of detail, the use of gesture, a praise of the merits of reading Chekhov, and finally a pleasantly reassuring chapter to encourage the reader or console the by now thoroughly intimidated writer.

I enjoyed this book very much. Although many of the points she makes seem obvious, I found myself more than once smiling as I uttered 'I hadn't thought of that!'. Prose's writing is beautifully clear – almost flawless in fact – with not a single clumsy sentence to be found throughout. Her selection of examples from classic literature, quoted extensively, provide the foundations on which her explanations are constructed, and the way she dissects each one is wonderful. While at times leaving me feeling rather inadequate both as a reader and a writer (reading so many examples of literary genius will invariably have that effect), I finished the book with a strong urge to read the originals in their entirety, knowing that I will read them with more insight than I otherwise would have had.
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LibraryThing member Silvernfire
I found this book in the Literary Criticism section of the bookstore. Yes, it belongs there: this is a book on how to read books. But this book also belongs in the writing section because this is a book on how to read books in order to improve your own writing. Francine Prose organizes this book as one might organize a how-to-write book, starting with a close look at word choice, then widening her focus in each succeeding chapter: sentences, paragraphs, narration, and so on. In each chapter, she draws on classic works of fiction to illustrate her point: examining the choice of individual adverbs with Katherine Mansfield's short stories, admiring a paragraph-long sentence by Virginia Woolf, noting how Chekhov's short stories always seemed to echo a point in a writing class she was teaching. Prose's love of good writing shines through this book and most readers will find it contagious, enjoying new insights into classical works even if they never feel like writing themselves.… (more)
LibraryThing member bearette24
I thought this book would be stuffy, but I really enjoyed it. After a slightly dull beginning, Francine Prose dives in and shares with us all these books I've never heard of: The Marquise of O by Heinrich von Kleist, Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer, and others.

She also analyzes various aspects of writing, such as plot, character, dialogue, and gesture, and provides examples from Chekhov of how every rule can be broken.

Thus, the book functions in two ways: as a writing guide and a really great recommendation source.
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LibraryThing member PhilipFOBrienJr
Francine Prose writes beautifully about what it means to read. To read at a deeper level. Not the way you do when you're studying for a test, or doing research, but reading as an active participant in the reader/writer dialog. Prose suggests that we read from the writers point of view; challenging us to try to understand what the writer is trying to accomplish and attempting to communicate to us. The text is adorned with lovingly crafted (and presented) bits of literature, deconstructed and analyzed for our benefit. Huge run-on length sentences by Henry James, which roll off the tongue effortlessly, and defy everything we were taught about what a sentence is, or even could be, are among the many things which make this book one that I've recommended in the past, and will turn to again in the future.

The appendix contains a wonderful list of "Book to be read immediately".
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LibraryThing member gendeg
Rush, rush, rush. When it comes to reading and the enjoyment of literature, the maxim we're taught is to read more and to read faster. Rejecting that rushed approach, Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer argues that it's better to slow down and pay attention. To linger and savor, not just mindlessly consume.

I read a lot and I'll be the first to admit that sometimes the only way to read the massive amount of new literary work being published every month, the classics on my bucket list, and the literary darlings from previous years is to read fast. But I try to make amends. If I've read too quickly, I'll often re-read. Favorites get read a few times. There are even some books I'll re-read every year religiously (why buy books if not to re-read them and enjoy them again and again?). Usually I'll find that I gain some new insight with each re-reading. Or that life experience and age filters it differently; something that moved me in a certain way at twenty-two moves me in another way in my mid-thirties. But I try not to skim because even judicious skimming ultimately makes the reading experience a hollow one. Like stuffing your face at the buffet bar and not really tasting anything.

Prose warns against skimming and rightfully so. “Skimming will not allow you to extract one fraction of what a writer’s words can teach us about how to use the language.” Very true. (Um, so why did our professors in college assign massive, difficult tomes to be read in a week's time? Skimming was, ironically, a survival skill we learned as English undergrads.) As fiction readers, our interface with the books we read is mainly through the plot (what happens) and through the characters (who's involved), but we often miss the more subtle cues of storytelling by glossing over the words, sentences, and paragraphs. Bottom-line, you miss a lot by reading quickly or not reading mindfully. Because even if you're just in it for the story, Prose's point is that the story—all the psychological truths and crucial revelations—also exists in the microcosms: the words used, the sentence structure, or the gestures of the characters as they speak. The story is in the details.

We forget that writers often labor painstakingly over a sentence or paragraph for days. Books are the result of multiple drafts. Good writing is never accidental; it's earnestly deliberate. There are effects and subtexts the writer wants to convey—even if we're not consciously aware of them—through the way something is written. In other words, it's not just what is said or written but *how*. Prose advocates for this kind of scrutiny and close reading. Books deserve more than our fleeting attention. She wants us to look at writing in the way we might walk up to a painting to peer at each brushstroke.

The idea of close reading might turn a lot of people off but to Prose's credit she makes the process a delightful one. (I wish I had read this as an undergrad!) Taking passages from various works, Prose breaks down what each writer does and achieves, closely examining the language used and how it expresses mood, character, and themes. You'll never look at these works the same way again.

Overall, Reading Like a Writer is must-read for any serious reader (and writer).
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LibraryThing member LDVoorberg
Don't read this book the way I did -- cover to cover out of general interest. The structure of the chapters are all the same: topic is presented, briefly discussed, then many good examples by famous authors are presented, often through long quotations. As a reader, this was tedious.

Instead, I think this book could be useful to a novice writer as a reference when they are struggling with a particular concept. In such situation, they can read the corresponding chapter to get some pointers and be exposed to a variety of strong examples. For a writer, this might be helpful.

The author sets up her exposition as if she is going to share some very important guidelines for writers. Aside from the fact that she acknowledges (in the final chapters) that anytime she gives a Do or Don't to her students she finds an effective example to prove her wrong, she doesn't give guidelines. She gives examples. Take out the quotations from this book and you have an extended newspaper feature article. Boiled right down, her thesis is "read good writing" and proceeds to give you examples of what you should be reading. At least, she does organize the samples to say "this is a good example of ____." I wish she would have closed her examples better; they're almost all intro heavy and exit light (or non-existant). Articulating what specifically was so good about the passage was not a strength. Though perhaps that is her point -- you can't nail down what makes writing good. Yet she has a whole book trying to tell you what good writing is.

In summary, this is a decent reference book for consultations as needed, but not a read-through kind of book.
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LibraryThing member tinkettleinn
Prose explains that language is the writer's medium, and language is all the reader needs to understand a written work. Writers are perfectionists (I don't think there are any exceptions) so every word they use has meaning and serves a purpose. Language is carefully crafted to convey the writer's intention. If you unpack a single word in a poem, short story, or novel, you will find that it has a role - like a character - in the setting, plot, and general flow of the piece. Language is the most important component of any written work, and it often receives the least consideration or analysis.

Prose writes that we should take our time with literature and enjoy the process of reading without worrying about the pace at which we're reading. She says this is why survey courses in Literature are not ideal. It's impossible to properly read and analyze ten great works of literature in a single semester. More attention needs to be given to reading a novel, not finishing it. Though, in the back of the book is a list of books in alphabetical order that Prose thinks should be read immediately. The list spans three pages. 'Immediately' sounds urgent. My fear is that I don't have enough time to read all of these books. Is it possible to forego sleep to acquire more time? Just think about all the time you lose sleeping.

I do love reading and close reading. It's a slow and wonderful process. Finishing a book isn't as important to me as it once was. I've been reading long enough to be able to judge what's worth reading and which books just aren't worth finishing. It's also important to analyze what makes a book forgettable as well as what makes it memorable.
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LibraryThing member Dabble58
Everyone should read this book. Francine Prose is a writer for the New York Review Of Books, where her book reviews are not to be missed. This book captures what readers should be looking for in books, as readers and writers, and it heightens both your appreciation for what you read as well as providing advice for what you write.
Many many examples of writing are included to illustrate points and that heightens the pleasure of reading this book - I now have a longer list of "to be read" selections that I might not otherwise have chosen.
Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member Nodosaurus
Reading Like a Writer is a description of writing. It focuses on the use of the word in literature, and makes excellent use of examples for well-known books to illustrate her points. Francine Prose describes the strengths of her selected passages and why the wording is important.

The book is aimed at improving the readers ability to appreciate good literature. She discusses the nuances of word use, picking at the meaning of individual words, and what is not said and why that is important. She talks about the use of paragraphs, and how changing the paragraphing changes meaning of text. She shows how to derive meaning from what isn't stated in the text, and makes me appreciate the effort that a quality writer goes to to get the words right.

After reading this work, I feel I have a new respect for literature. I'm eager to try to tackle some of the books she's recommended.
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LibraryThing member upstairsgirl
Francine Prose's book is a great guidebook for the literary tourist, a thorough and engaging reminder to actually look at the ways in which what you're reading has been constructed - to look at each word, sentence, and paragraph so as to understand what is and isn't said, what it tells you, and why. Along the way, she introduces you to countless authors you have and haven't heard of, giving you just enough of a taste that you want to read them all. (Well. I don't want to read Pynchon or Flaubert or Nabokov again, but I can see where you'd feel like you might.)

She addresses, sort of obliquely, the question of whether writing workshops and classes are "worth it" and whether there are rules of construction that can be taught or imparted or imbibed, and comes to the conclusion that the rules are really more like guidelines, and that there as many good reasons to break the rules as to follow them.

The examples in the text form the basis of a great reading list, and following the book is a list - containing some books from which Prose has taken examples, and others that she has not - which is also excellent. She has a definite taste for the old masters, and for Russian lit, but more importantly she has excellent taste in literature, and an excellent eye for how writers do what they do. I disagreed with some of her analyses, but I really enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it to readers and writers alike.
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LibraryThing member Cauterize
I picked up this book because the book's title describes one of my life's goals: to write a book someday (hopefully). I still don't think I'm ready to reach that goal, but this book helped me to start reading books in a different light.

Sometimes I think I am the world's worst reader of literature. I tend to read everything literally rather than think of any themes, metaphors or analogies. I enjoy reading for plot, characters, dialogue but skip over the construction of the writing, what the author is trying to say by how they construct their prose. Francine Prose's book tries to teach someone like me, to read between the lines, and to analyze what makes great writing, great.

Prose argues that one does not need classes or "how-to" books to learn how to write. She advocates that the best lesson for writing is close reading the work of great writers. Reading like a Writer basically excerpts famous works, and then Prose discusses how each passage shows great technique to construct sentences, character, tone, narration, dialogue, gestures, etc. Prose even includes a chapter on Checkov to show how he "breaks" all the previous rules.

As a result of my background, I sometimes found it tough to do the close reading. I am a fast reader and tend to race through books to "find out what happens next". But for once, I really took my time to go through the passages and I do think it's influenced how I read. I'll admit, I still don't understand some of the points Prose tries to make (especially the paragraph section), but I feel I'm closer to understanding than I was before. Maybe I'm just thanking my lucky stars that someone actually tried to explain close reading; all my English lit classes all the way into University never did (and I did well in them!)

Reading like a Writer was a NYTimes Bestseller, and it's easy to see why. Prose has a love of books and the written language, and her writing is very accessible. The passages she chose were from a very diverse group of writers and she even includes a list of "Books to be Read Immediately" that I will try to make a must-read for me in the next few years. Definitely Recommended.
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LibraryThing member citygirl
This is a wonderful book. Ms. Prose, an aptly named writer, writing/lit instructor and critic, shares some of her favorite passages from novels and stories to highlight techniques for using words, narrative, character, gesture etc. And she's not shy about her worship of Chekhov (guess I should read him). Very enjoyable to read, it provides great information without being the least bit pedantic or boring. She even provides a list of "Books to Be Read Immediately," from which many of the passages are taken. This is a woman who is truly in love with fiction. I'll be referring back to this often.… (more)
LibraryThing member wndevro
I really enjoyed this. Would be a good tool to expand discussion in book group.
LibraryThing member trav
Prose is very good at connecting the big dots. That is, she does a good job at finding great examples of technique, character development, etc. That's where I really found some value in this book, it added some new titles to my "to be read" list that I'm very excited about.

If you've ever taken Creative Writing 101 or Journalsim Reporting 101, Prose's concepts will be more of a review (but with GREAT examples) and not much else.

But if you like good writing for writing's sake, then this book will whet your appetite for some of the more classic books you may not have read.
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LibraryThing member tedmahsun
This book is an oxymoron, a paradox for me - I like it and I hate it; what I like about it I hate and what I hate about it I like. My favourite chapters are the first chapter and the last two chapters. I enjoyed "Learning from Chekhov" the most.
LibraryThing member wordygirl39
Love it. It's one of the important texts for creative writers.
LibraryThing member DarkWater
Prose's only real advice (wisely) is to read slowly. Only then can we properly understand good literature. She seeds our efforts with a great many of superb writing.
LibraryThing member NativeRoses
The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading—carefully, deliberately and slowly. While this might seem like a no-brainer, Prose masterfully meditates on how quality reading informs great writing, which will warm the cold, jaded hearts of even the most frustrated, unappreciated and unpublished writers.
LibraryThing member JCO123
Read review on it in the NY Times.
Good book and really interesting for writers, I'm not sure that it was that good for readers.
I think that after this I will read a little more closely and see some of the methods
mentioned in the book. There were several suggestions for books here that I will
probably read.
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LibraryThing member debnance
Prose shows us all her favorite passages from a lifetime of good reading. It was a lovely trip and it took me places I would not have thought to go. I especially liked Prose's thoughts on writing, how good writing often breaks the conventional rules of good writing.


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