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on 13 June 2012
This book is a plea to slow down.

Francine Prose (I'll call her 'Francine' with apologies - there's an obvious problem with calling her 'Prose') is a novelist and she teaches creative writing. Her aim here is not to bottle her classwork but to offer a complementary course in close reading. A writing workshop, she feels, "can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work." And the right class can create a community "that will help and sustain you." But the best way to learn how to write is to read great books.


Slow reading, says Francine, helps us learn "the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes."

So this most definitely isn't a `how to' book. A manual, she says, usually tells you how *not* to write; in contrast, "reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly."

In eight chapters, she shows us precisely that. Looking at words, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details and gesture, she offers close readings of texts from a dizzyingly wide range of writers, many of them new to this reviewer.

If you're younger than me, you may find Francine's project old-fashioned. Close reading was born with the New Criticism favoured by her high school teacher; a mode of reading that fell seriously out of favour during the late 70s and 80s, "when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists and so forth". Francine remains resolutely unideological. Whatever rules or general advice she offers in her writing class, she finds that close reading undercuts with particular exceptions. "Literature," she says, "not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there *are none*."

If you find that a seriously uncomfortable truth - well, stay with her, because the best comes last.

Some of the readings, in truth, are closer than others. But throughout the book, Francine startles us with stunning insights. On narration: the question's not "third voice or first voice?"; instead, "the truly problematic question is: Who is listening?" On details: "If we want to write something memorable, we might want to pay attention to how and what we remember." On gesture: "One notices how rarely - almost never - Jane Austen uses physical gesture."

Her greatest hero - unsurprisingly, perhaps - is Chekhov, who wrote that "a writer must be as objective as a chemist", and that "it is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense."

No easy answers, then. Close reading is hard work - almost as hard as writing. But for Francine, it's also an exercise in freedom. "Reading," she says, "can give you the courage to resist all the pressures that our culture exerts on you to write in a certain way." If, like most people who try to write, you've "experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve," then this book will be a solace, a source of inspiration, and a boon companion.

I started this book sceptical; but I'll be returning to it on a regular basis.

A longer version of this review appears at:

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on 10 August 2008
Won't teach you how to write, but it may serve to heighten your awareness of techniques that can be employed to bring credibility to a piece of work. I particularly liked points in the books where she highlights differences between clichéd language and more original language, and emphasises the importance of word economy: how to say only what needs to be said.

I found certain chapters - `Close Reading', `Words', `Narration', `Character', `Dialogue' and `Gesture' - both interesting and informative, and I believe they considerably sharpen the tools needed to critically analyse other's work if we are to improve our own writing and yet avoid overt imitation or, worse, plagiarism.

You do, however, get the impression in two of those interesting and informative chapters - `Character' and `Dialogue' - that, although very good points are made, much of what is included is unnecessary: too often much of these chapters seem to merely serve to summarise lengthy sections of stories she particularly likes, but not provide anything more to a valid point that was made succinctly enough in one or two paragraphs. I wish to avoid being too critical here, though, as the points in these chapters are generally well-made and maybe the length of some of the examples used here is necessary for emphasis; to avoid these points being neglected as incidental digressions.

Here, though, I must mention the two chapters - `Sentences' and `Paragraphs' - that I believe are essentially pointless as they are too analytical of specific examples and bring out little in general that a practising writer may use to inspire their own technique. I would also go as far as to say that where good points are made - in `Sentences' - the examples used to highlight these are not particularly good and, in some cases, serve more to contradict than to clarify. In addition, coming as do so early in the book - chapters one and two - is fairly off-putting and could deter you from wishing to read further, which would be a shame as there is much here for a close and critical reader to consider when approaching their own reading and writing.

And that would be the book in a nutshell: yes, there is a lot to be had from it and is, therefore, worth recommending for that, but there will be the occasional section where you may ask yourself why you are bothering.

All-in-all though, worth the time and effort.
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on 29 December 2006
You certainly are a person who enjoys reading. The beauty of this book is that its author teaches us how to read carefully, deliberately and slowly in order to digest and extract the ideas behind the words, and also to identify the style of an specific writer. By doing so Francine Prose gives us the tool that we may require to become a better writer. Basically is a process of learning by example, and Prose goes all the way to select and bring us a lot of examples, both from classical and contemporary authors.

As you advance through the chapters you will find examples covering the fundamentals of writing, including aspects related to narrative, plot development, characters creation, as well as the basics of sentence and paragraph structure.

Even if you have no intention at all of becoming a writer you will love this book, since it also teaches us how to have a better appreciation of what we read.
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on 22 February 2009
The title struck a chord because when I read a good book I'm forever stopping and thinking, `How did she do that?' or `Where did that construction come from?' - and whereas I've always thought of this as a bad idea because it tends to interrupt the flow, Francine Prose actively encourages the habit and indeed demonstrates how to indulge it in forensic detail.

I found Reading Like a Writer quite fascinating. It takes the reader on a crash course in close reading, starting at the level of single words and sentences, then paragraphs, dialogue etc. to explore the writer's intentions with a particular inflection or form of words, and demonstrating that what we enjoy as rhythmic, lucid prose which engages us and carries the narrative along, is the result of careful choices, often so subtle as to be near-invisible. Every point is illustrated by example, and if the list of writers is subjective I would say that's inevitable, perhaps crucial - it's certainly wide enough, and there are several writers whose work I'm keen to explore now that I've been introduced to them.

The author clearly enjoys breaking the `rules' - we share a suspicion of the writing-course mantra `Show, don't tell' - and the final chapter on Chekov, rule-breaker par excellence, shows that we are in good company.
I would recommend the book to anyone interested in good prose, whether to read it or write it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 January 2014
I've lingered over the rating for this book. Is it truly a 5 or rightly a 4 star? I've plumped for the former on the basis that there is a universal, albeit less popular truth here. Sometimes, slow is good.

We live in a throw away world increasingly dominated by speed. No time to write or punctuate so 'txt spk rls'...convenience of time over content so if it's fast it must be good. Not always so.

I'm an avid reader. Now, mostly for pleasure but previously I'd acquired fast/speed reading skills to assimilate large amounts of work related text. Mostly dry, policy related documents or technical background data. Speed reading is great for that; skim the whole, identify and absorb the salient bits, move over the rest.

The principles explored here turn a number of concepts on their head. Like a fine or good wine, reading is something to be savoured not gulped. Reading for pleasure should be an emotive experience where words reach into the soul. Even a simple sentence can strike a chord. This book encourages the reader to step back, slow down and think. What was the author trying to achieve? What are they saying? How are they saying it?

In part it took me back some years to a time where an exam book was almost a line by line dissection of any narrative text. Clinical but thought provoking. This book examines similar principles in a more productive and positive way. As a reader, I found it affirming, helpful and instructive. I've often resisted fast reading for pleasure and this book confirms what may be missed and why. For writers, there's a whole different perspective on how to truly engaged with readers.

Really enjoyed the content and the easy but not patronising approach so it's a 5 star winner for that.
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VINE VOICEon 26 February 2008
Francine Prose explicates on writing creatively with a masterful analysis. The rules for storytelling are refreshingly challenged, using many examples of well-known author's writing styles. This is a book for reflective readers, who love the way words are woven to create and tell a story. For writers who want to create stories that are not hidebound by dead rules. In the first chapter Prose poses the question: "Can creative writing be taught?" Her answer to this, we learn to write by trial and error, and by example when reading books. Reading slowly, carefully, and concentrating on the writers for whom every word in a paragraph is essential for reader impact. In my estimation, this is a most stimulating book for anyone fascinated with novel reading and writing.
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I was drawn to this book by some enthusiastic reviews by fellow readers. I was curious to find out what Ms Prose has to say on whether creative writing can be taught, keen to find out which writers she admires, which books she recommends, and why.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book: I particularly liked Ms Prose's suggestion that although writing workshops can be helpful, the best way to learn how to write is to read widely. Ms Prose encourages readers to read closely, to read every word and pay attention to the words used. Reading like a writer requires, perhaps, a different blend of the reading skills used in some other occupations. Words, for writers, are the `raw material out of which literature is crafted'. Words, for readers, constitute a finished work. Ms Prose suggests that the reader consider each word used and ask: `.. what sort of information is each word - each word choice - trying to convey?' For some of us, that conscious slowing down of reading won't always be easy.

`Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth - a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well.'

There's advice about words, sentences, and paragraphs, about narration and character, about dialogue, details and gestures. What makes this advice come alive is the examples Ms Prose gives, and the writers whose work she draws on to demonstrate the points she makes. This leads to a list of book recommendations which inevitably, in my case, adds books to my personal `must read' list. But I'm drawn most immediately to want to read more work by Anton Chekhov. I like the way in which Ms Prose drew on her own reading of Chekhov's short stories, found examples of how he had successfully broken the `rules' of fiction writing which contradicted advice she had given her students. It isn't the contradiction I find interesting, it's the focus on how Chekhov wrote, on being receptive to the needs of any particular story.

`The advantage of reading widely, as opposed to trying to formulate a series of general rules, is that we learn there are no general rules, only individual examples to help point you in a direction in which you might want to go.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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on 9 October 2013
Fantastic book, true to its name which gets straight to the point, filled with very helpful tips in getting the most of your reading experience. Reading it seems is similar to driving cars! As we get better we seem to drive faster which makes us oblivious to the obstacles somehow. Reading can induce a similar habit of reading too fast, which results in less absorption of the context or and flow of the book in our hands. Personally, I am facing a very real issue of reading too fast, an acquired habit I am desperately trying to change. Hopefully this book can result in motivating this change in me which I know will not be easy.
The book is also filled with other tips to improve writing skills as well as various different styles to help improve writing. Very nice and helpful book, but not entirely sure most of the tips will be that useful to the writers in Britain though.

I plan to use this book as a reference for my next writing venture.
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'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.
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on 14 May 2008
This isn't a very good book. It should be re-titled as "How to read like a writer: me". The book starts of nicely with a very interesting chapter concerning Close Reading, but then the quote festival begins. For chapters and chapters all the author does is to present us with huge quotes from literary geniuses and to display a very small and insipid subjective opinion on them which scarcely relates to the chapter topic.
I only give it two stars for the first chapter and the one entitled "Learning with Checkov".
Reading this is a kind of torture: very disapointing.
I would recommend "How to read a book" by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.
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