Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

December 31, 2006 Categories: Books , Commonplace Book , Reviews , Writing | 21 Comments  

First off, the author’s name. Could she have been anything else? She had to be a writer, right? Just saying.

I said a few days ago that I didn’t expect to finish any more books before the end of the year. That was before I opened this gem on Christmas morning. This book should be read by anyone who loves to read and wants to write. Can you want to write without loving to read? Hmmmmm….. I don’t see how.

Ms. Prose showed me how to read, how I should be reading in order to be a writer. And this book is so lovely, it made me feel like a better writer just having read it! Each chapter examines a different aspect of writing, from the minute detail like word choice, to broader topics like dialogue and character. Along the way, the author quotes passages from the great writers and shows why the choices they made have created classics. (As a result, there are a few new authors added to my to-read list.) As I read this book, Ms. Prose’s love for reading and the craft of writing fills every page, and made my fingers itch to start writing something truly beautiful.

Here are a few favorite passages:

“Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure. This may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you. You will do yourself a disservice if you confine your reading to the rising star whose six-figure, two-book contract might seem to indicate where your own work should be heading. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read such writers, some of whom are excellent and deserving of celebrity. I’m only pointing out that they represent the dot at the end of the long, glorious, complex sentence in which literature has been written.

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.” p. 15-16

“The well-made sentence transcends time and genre. A beautiful sentence is a beautiful sentence, regardless of when it was written, or whether it appears in a play or a magazine article.” p. 36

“When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are not saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we are saying. As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.” p. 144

“Reading Chekhov, I felt not happy, exactly, but as close to happiness as I knew I was likely to come. And it occurred to me that this was the pleasure and mystery of reading, as well as the answer to those who say that books will disappear. For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on a bus.” p. 235

“When we think about how many terrifying things people are called on to do every day as they fight fires, defend their rights, perform brain surgery, give birth, drive on the freeway, and wash skycraper windows, it seems frivolous, self-indulgent, and self-important to talk about writing as an act that requires courage. What could be safer than sitting at your desk, lightly tapping a few keys, pushing your chair back, and pausing to see what marvelous tidbits of art your brain has brought forth to amuse you?

And yet most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know – those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.

All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.” p. 249-250


  1. Debs

    Looks like a good book. Happy New Year :-)

  2. carrie

    Happy New Year, Debs!

  3. Mrs. House Mouse

    I like the part about the beautiful sentence!
    Happy New Year!

  4. carrie

    Mrs. House Mouse – Happy New Year to you!

  5. Birdie

    That sounds interesting! Thanks for the reading idea.

    I just wanted to stop by and wish you and your family the happiest and most blessed new year yet! I also wanted to thank you for sharing of yourself in your blog during the year. I have found it entertaining, enlightening and often a blessing! Thanks a bunch!

  6. carrie

    Birdie- thank you so much for your sweet comments – and thanks for all the times you stopped by and left a note. Happy New Year to you and your family!

  7. carrie

    Mrs. House Mouse – where are you? The link isn’t working!

  8. Mrs. House Mouse

    Oops! Here I am! Does it work now?

  9. carrie

    Mrs. Mouse – found you!

  10. Lawanda

    That sounds like a great book! I need to read it too. I love reading, but I am a lousy writer! :-p

  11. carrie

    Lawanda – it is definitely a worthy read!

  12. jules

    I keep reading great things about this book. Thanks for the review and sharing those passages. I will just have to get it.

  13. carrie

    Jules – yes, it’s definitely one to own your own copy of.

  14. Carrie

    Definitely marking this down as something to read. Thanks for posting about it.

    - the other Carrie

  15. cloudscome

    This looks like a great book. I am going to look for it.

  16. Mindy

    This is near the top of my 2007 reading list. Thanks for the review. Now I’m even more anxious to get to this one!

  17. Ruth

    This one looks really good.

  18. Jennifer, Snapshot

    Great thoughts Carrie. I know that being an avid reader as a child led naturally to me wanting to write that next great book.

  19. Dianne

    Thanks for the good review – this sounds right up my alley!

  20. carrie

    Hey, ladies – thanks for stopping by and all the nice comments.

  21. Semicolon

    [...] 1. JustOneMoreBook (Suki’s Kimono)2. Cindy (The Children of Men)3. Carrie K. (Reading Like a Writer)4. Anne (The Christian Almanac)5. Carrie/Bookfest (The Thirteenth Tale)6. cloudscome (Psalms Through the Year)7. Brenda N (Evasions)8. Monica (Through Painted Deserts)9. Mindy (The Alchemist)10. Stephen Lang11. Ruth (Anacaona)12. MFS (Girls of Tender Age)13. Allison (There Is No Me Without You)14. DeputyHeadmistress (The Day No Pigs Would Die and Fast Food Nation) [...]