The Challenge Continues: Reading Like a Writer
I’ve been setting myself a challenge by reading Francine Prose’s 2006 New York Times bestseller: Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Last time I blogged on “the challenge,” I happily reported that Prose does believe writing can be taught – at least to some extent – and that it is worth reading like a writer so that you can absorb what the true writing masters have to offer us.
This is a craft book that is eminently readable and useful. The guts of the book are arranged with deceptive simplicity into single-word chapter titles. Chapters two through four are labeled simply: “Words,” “Sentences,” “Paragraphs.” Could there be a more direct way to begin? For here are the building blocks of every writer’s arsenal – the very foundation of our craft. It’s what we begin our journey towards literacy with from our very infancy: words that eventually lead to sentences and paragraphs. Of course, we don’t think of paragraphs until we learn to read and write. And, in fact, some people never think of paragraphs at all. I’ve had students whose work itself is evidence of that. “Why no paragraph breaks?” I scrawl in a margin. The answer is all too obvious: they don’t know where to put them. Prose’s book can be a happy antidote to such issues.
Prose writes, “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.” In the same way, the right word is simply right and the writer shows her authority in using words and sentences with confidence. As readers, we believe we are in good hands and can relax into the work.
I like how Prose advocates a slow reading as an absolute necessity to “reading like a writer.” I have always been suspicious of those who tear through serious articles and books. Are they just skimming? Are they skipping whole sections? Are they enjoying the words? For after all, how can we appreciate the individual words we meet on the page if we are in a race to the finish line. Of course, this only works if we’re reading wonderful books, something all writers should do more of, if you ask me.
Prose calls style manuals similar to writing workshops in that they stress “how not to write … and have the same disadvantage – a pedagogy that involves warnings about what might be broken and directions on how to fix it – as opposed to learning from literature, which teaches by positive model.”
Prose also gives short shrift to the mantra to “show, don’t tell.” Prose says it “leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out…” Instead she believes – as I do – that “the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language…” She goes on to say that “there are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing.” So true, and so difficult to communicate to beginning writers! It’s the carefully selected word or phrase that can simply and effectively illuminate character.
What makes these three chapters work together so perfectly are Prose’s wonderfully selected examples that illustrate ideal usage. Readers are treated to excerpts from Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Chandler, to name just a few. In this way she follows her own advice and gives us something to get us started on our journey to reading like a writer.