Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday 28 June 2012

Reading Like A Writer - Francine Prose

A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

'What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.'

In this guide, author and teacher Francine Prose offers us her experience and advice about how to read like a writer. She argues convincingly that one of the best ways to learn to write is by reading what she calls the 'masters', reading them slowly, and looking carefully at the words used, through close reading. She aims 'to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.'

After introducing her ideas and approach, she devotes chapters to words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details and gesture, as well as one entitled learning from Chekhov, and finally, reading for courage. She also suggests and includes in the book a list of 'Books to be read immediately', a bibliography of the many great writers she has referred to, and/or quoted from throughout the book.

This book is not one telling you what to do, or what not to do, something the author acknowledges is often a common feature of writing manuals or guides: 'One essential and telling difference between learning from a style manual and learning from literature is that any how-to book will, almost by definition, tell you how not to write.' It is instead encouraging the love of, and joy in reading, and illustrating how close reading of wonderful writers past can enlighten a budding writer and be a rewarding learning experience that can positively influence their own writing.

As a reader who would love to write, I think this informative book, written in an engaging and very accessible style, is very useful indeed. So often we find ourselves reading very quickly, for plot, and that is fine in certain circumstances, that may be what we need from a book at a given time. But when wanting to consider how we might start writing ourselves, I really like the approach taken here, the idea of reading closely, slowly. 

'In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and re-read the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot creating characters, employing detail and dialogue.'

I enjoyed looking anew with the author's guidance at wonderful sentences and passages taken from works by great writers, being encouraged by her to think about what they have written, the effect of the words, what is said and unsaid, and so on. There are writers featured whose works I remember having read and loved in the past, like Richard Yates, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, but she reminded me also of writers I had almost forgotten reading and admiring, back in University, like Kleist. I was also introduced to writers whose works I have never read, through the inclusion of elements of their work here.

I think there will always be the question of finding your own voice and your own style, but it certainly seems like a worthwhile exercise to look more closely at the works of writers you admire. I intend to return to it again and again. 

Published by Union Books, an imprint of Aurum Press

Reviewed for NewBooks magazine.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating book. I wonder whether she mentions the prose (handy surname, isn't it?) of the translators of Dostoevsky, Kafka etc?

    1. I really enjoyed it and felt I got a lot from it Rachel, I will keep it close by and refer to it again. Yes her surname is pretty apt! I'm not sure I will have to go back and look but that's a brilliant question because they gave us the words we have to read these works.

  2. I liked this book, too, and enjoyed your review -- so I linked to it from mine.

    Joy's Book Blog


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