Writers don’t necessarily read like other people. Many of us notice little things—plot devices, grammar errors, characterization flaws—that other readers don’t, and they bug us, because we’ve sensitized ourselves to what good writing reads like. We get labeled as snobs for it, sometimes, but I think it’s part of being a writer. (I explained more about the snobbery of a writer and why it’s a good thing in this previous post.)

One of the best things about Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose is that she demonstrates how writers read, and why it’s a valid and valuable experience. She starts by looking at close reading, where a reader feels the weight of every word, and goes on to explore sentences, paragraph breaks, narration, dialogue, gesture and all the other aspects that make up a story. Throughout the work, she uses real examples from other author’s works, and it’s almost like the textbook for a class on how to read well.

One area of writing I hadn’t considered before reading this book was paragraphs. I usually break passages into paragraphs as needed, when I felt the topic shift or when dialogue required it, but I hadn’t really thought about what paragraphs did to the text and the reading experience. Quoting Isaac Babel, she writes, “A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect.” Then she goes on to show us how good writing does that, moving from the general idea to the specific reality in each of the categories of writing.

I especially enjoyed her chapter on close reading, something I’ve been fond of ever since my college Shakespeare class. The idea behind close reading is to slow down, paying attention to which words are used and which aren’t. She writes, “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 these choices.”

Without close reading, she says, “we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” Often, this technique is applied to Shakespeare’s plays because there is so much there. When you see a play performed well, you can feel the effect of his word choices, but you won’t be able to intellectually appreciate it until you take it apart, line by line, word by word, and see how the precision of word and repetition and theme play out in the story.

And I think this applies to all good writing. The best works can not only stand scrutiny but improve under its gaze. You realize how brilliant, how apt, how precise the word choices of other authors are, and this realization helps you become a better reader of your own writing. I didn’t always agree with Ms. Prose as to what she considers good writing. Some of the examples weren’t such that I necessarily admired what she quoted, and, as she writes herself, “Not all great writers may seem great to us, regardless of how often and how hard we try to see their virtues,” but her book does a great job helping us understand where great writing comes from, dissecting the techniques used to create masterpieces.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by mzacha; Creative Commons

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