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Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Updated on August 31, 2015

The Gift of Writing and the Keenness of Reading

Writing is an easy skill that everybody can master with perseverance and exercise. From a simple school composition to very complex novels or academic papers, all writings have a certain degree of craftiness. But how do we know which of us is reaching beyond the polished surface. Which of us has the GIFT.

Francine Prose's book is about recognizing this gift of writing as readers, and make us aware of our own potential as writers. Here is what she says: 'Too often students are being taught to read as if literature were some kind of ethics class or civic class - or worse, some kind of self-help manual. In fact, the important thing is the way the writer uses the language'.

Chapter after chapter, Prose decodes the secrets of great pieces of literature. The book discusses specific topics:

Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, Gesture.

Francine Prose, from
Francine Prose, from

Close Reading - All writers learn the craft by reading and writing;

Words - the right word gives you the right feeling, the right image; reading word by word is the best way to learn; "it's essential to slow down and read every word. (...) language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes. (...) it's surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the row material out of which literature is crafted." p. 17-18

Sentences - look for clarity, economy and comprehensibility of the writing that tells more in one sentence then in a whole page of not so good writing;

Paragraphs - rhythm, dissonances, the ending of a paragraph that makes us to keep reading; "Paragraphs are a form of emphasis. What appears at the start and end of the paragraph has (again, if we except passages such as the one from Desperate Characters[by Paula Fox]) great weight then what appears in the middle." p.76

Narration - who is narrating and who are the listeners? is the story narrated like real people would tell it to a friend? there is much variation, lots of possibilities "to consider as we choose how to narrate our stories and novels. Deciding on the narrator's identity, and personality, is an important step. But it is only a step. What really matters is what happens after that-the language that the writer uses to interest and engage us in the vision and the version of events that we know as fiction." p.108

Character - look for the words they speak, the actions they do, the way they feel, the way they are dress,etc., how much a writer reveals and how much the readers have to unravels about a character of a book.

Dialogue - one of the hardest skill to master; a good dialog sounds like a real talk but is much improved, it tells not only what words describe but has an underlining meaning: "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 contains as much or even more subtext then it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it." p.144

Details - God is in details; details make a story trustworthy; our lives are made out of details;

Gesture - avoiding the cliches is, at list, a must for a writer; gestures describe acharacter, his position in society, his/her feelings, his/her unspoken words; "my definition of gesture includes small phisical actions, often unconscious or semi reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentuous actions." p.210

Each chapter brings up one or more very successful writers and their way of writing. There's Jane Austin and Keist for character building, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Virginia Woolf for paragraphs, Henry Green and David Gates for dialogs, and many others: Joyce, Kafka, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, Jane Bowles, James Baldwin, Alice Munro, which were the author's models and teachers.

At the end of the book is a list of 'Books to Be Read Immediately' with over 120 entries. The list is protected by copywrite and cannot be reproduced but it contains names like (in alphabetical order): Akutagawa, Jean Austen, Isaac Babel, Balzac, Emily Bronte, Italo Calvino, Cervantes, Raymond Chandler, Chehov, Dickens, Dostoievski, George Eliot, Flaubert, David Gates, Gogol, James Henry, Denis Johnson, Kafka, John LeCarre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Melville, Nabukov, Flannery O'Connor, Proust, Philip Roth, Salinger, Shakespeare, Lev Tolstoi (Leo Tolstoy), Turgheniev (Turgenev), William Trevor, Rebecca West and many others.

Francine Prose was born in 1947, in Brooklyn, NY. She built her carrier as a writer while being a book reviewer. She has also taught creative writing and literature to major Universities. She had won several awards for her fiction works. Some of her novels are: Blue Angel, Hungry Hearts, A change Man, Goldengrove. In between 2007 and 2009, Francine Prose was the president of PEN American Center.


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    • cameciob profile image

      cameciob 6 years ago

      msms, I appreciate your kind words. All I did is to resume this great book in hope that people may find it useful in the effort in polishing their writting skills. Francine Prose is a great teacher. Thank you for stipping to my hub.

    • msms profile image

      msms 6 years ago

      cameciob you have written here the Bible of writing the key area of knowledge for every hub makers / writer here. I could get some gems and pearls from this Hub of yours.

      Thanks cameciob

    • cameciob profile image

      cameciob 7 years ago

      Website Examiner, Thank you for being the first to comment on this hub.

      On the other hand there may be different ways to get to the North Pole...

      What I learned from this book is to decode a book, chapter by chapter and word by word and to separate a brilliant writer from a good one which I did before reading Prose's book but couldn't put it in words.

      On the other hand, again, yes I think you're right about the flexibility of our minds and I'll say as writers as well as readers. The readers minds and the readers expectations and experience make an author good or not so good.

      Thank you for visiting.

    • profile image

      Website Examiner 7 years ago

      This is an interesting hub, which has given me something to think about. I would agree that writing can be learned to some extent; certainly there are many ways to improve upon one's writing.

      On the other hand, we all have our inherent limitations or boundaries that cannot easily be expanded, I think. Maybe it has to do with the flexibility of our mind; how quickly our mind can perform the computations that enable us to build meaningful, truly original sentences and paragraphs. The possibilities are theoretically endless, but then again: In theory we could all visit the North Pole. Thanks.