Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
By Francine Prose
Published by Harper Perennial
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It’s not often I read nonfiction (only a handful of books come to mind – Band of Brothers, Bossypants, uh… that might actually be it for now), but during my recent trip to Strand Book Store, I was inexplicably drawn to Reading Like a Writer. This book, written by novelist and creative writing instructor Francine Prose is not your typical “how to” for writing a novel, or work of fiction.
In Reading Like a Writer, Prose doesn’t really tell you want you can’t do (in terms of writing); instead she points out common “rules” for good writing, and then she points you to those exceptional writers who have blatantly ignored some of these rules, to masterful effect.
The book is ordered in a bottom-up approach to writing. We start by learning about words – how one author might choose the word “grandmother” over the grandmother’s first name – and move on to sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and, finally, gesture.
The resulting book is something like a class on short stories that I took in college. It provides short excerpts from famous writers (examples include Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, and the author’s particular favorite: Anton Chekov). The structure of the book provides a sort of travelogue to different parts of writing. You might want to examine how some authors structure their sentences, or look at how different authors choose to paragraph a section. By including examples from a variety of great authors, the reader has a chance to absorb positive qualities and, ultimately, learn by positive reinforcement.
This book is not a writing workshop—it won’t provide technical feedback for your writing. Heck, it won’t even tell you if you definitely should or shouldn’t use a certain technique. It just tells you what others have done, and occasionally describes how a “lesser” writer might have written it differently.
I thought this book was really interesting, and also inspiring. It inspired me to keep on writing the novel I’ve been dragging my feet on for the past year. It also inspired me to keep a closer eye on what I’m reading, because a good writer can include much more than you might realize in a single sentence.
I’d recommend Reading Like a Writer if you’re looking for a good book on fiction writing. It’s filled with a lot of inspirational material, examples from “classic” stories, and some funny anecdotes from Prose’s life in literature. Even if you’re not a writer, but just a reader looking to read with more depth and understanding, I would recommend this book.