Book Review: Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

This book is another one of my adventures into books about writing written by actual writers. According to Francine Prose, creative writing, ultimately, cannot be taught. She encourages the would-be writer to, instead, learn through a form of literary osmosis: study the masters. She believes the rules, usually, taught in writing classes are all too often arbitrary and restrictive. Prose shows how the great writers—masters whom stand the test of time—broke with the conventions of their day.

Keep in mind, Francine Prose is not only an accomplished author, but has experience teaching creative writing at the university level; she has seen and done it all.

“It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, the wider they conceive horizons to be. And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”

Anton Chekhov

Of course, there are better craft reference books out there. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of building sentences, pacing, etcetera, this book is not for you. However, if you are new to writing, and want to just know what the hell it is you are suppose to write, suppose to notice, suppose to build, suppose to engage, then this book is a must-read. Learning how the masters told their stories is never a dull undertaking.

Happy Reading!

I recommend, if you found this review helpful, you read this post, too.

What Exactly is Good Writing?

            The author of The Editor’s Companion, Steve Dunham, explains the marks of good writing: good writing is focused, has good content, uses precise language, and uses good grammar.[1] Good writing is concise; the writer should winnow away all needless words and expressions. Good writing is the result of clarity. Good writing is concerned with the reader: the writer uses words the reader understands. Good writing cares about grammar, for at least, the sake of the reader.

            I agree! I believe what constitutes good writing are the following: writing should be clear, economical, and sharp. In addition, to Dunham’s philosophy, I also think good writing embraces clarity as an even higher ideal than grammatical correctness.[2] The writer should strive for economy, clarity, and sharpness above all else.

“I am convinced the most effective way to learn how to write is through reading.” – W. Alexander

            I am convinced the most effective way to learn how to write is through reading; close-reading a specific, accomplished author or genre will teach the writer everything. What you will find is that good, no great writers, use, for example, paragraphs as literary respiration. Consider, Babel- Walter Morrison’s, Crossing into Poland:”

            “Fields flowered around us, crimson with poppies; a noontide breeze played in the yellowing rye; on the horizon virginal buckwheat rose like the wall of a distant monastery… The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head, and mild light glowed from the cloud gorges. The standards of the sunset flew above our heads. Into the cool of evening dripped the smell of yesterday’s blood, of slaughtered horses.” [3]

            Reread that paragraph, slowly. Typically, like you, I have been taught to write in a manner that inhales at the beginning of the paragraph, and exhales at the end. This allows for rhythmic change or a perspective shift. Here is the beginning of the very next paragraph.

            Savitsky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of the giant’s body.”

Related Post

Beat the Boy; Destroy the Man 

W. Alexander Dunford  I will never forget the television’s blue light that night fifteen years ago. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond played. Outside, beneath black skies, rain pelted our windows and the house’s bones braced against high winds. Thunder shook the walls.  It was Father’s idea to watch the movie. He loved violence, and I loved…

Loading…

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

            Notice that shift? Notice how breathless the previous paragraph left you, but then abruptly the camera shifts? That to me is brilliant writing that can only be observed through close-reading. Of course, there are volumes of books on what makes good writing, and even more published works of great writing, but great fiction, like poetry, respects the power of rhythm.


[1] Dunham, Steve. The Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. chp 2.

[2] Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. HaperCollins e-books. New York, NY.  pp. 44

[3] Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. ‘Crossing into Poland.’ Translated by Walter Morison. HaperCollins e-books. New York, NY.  pp. 65

Writing Against The Odds: Ignore The Noise

Have you ever heard it said I would love to write a book, if only I had the time? I hate to hear those words. They imply that writing is easy; some people think they can just sit down, one-day, and produce a story. I want to reply: I would love to be an astronaut or a theoretical physicist, if only I had the time. It is irrational to think writing is not serious, hard work. Some people think art is a childish past-time. However, we know writing is a craft, and the technique requires mastering, and sometimes that takes decades.

These people think since money buys everything, therefore it means everything, and dreams come, unfortunately, second. They understand little in regards to what a person is called to do. Unfortunately, haters are here to stay in our lives, so we will always be surrounded by people who grade another’s worth in numbers. Below are some examples of what you have, no-doubt, personally heard:

  • Do you know how difficult it is to get published? This is often the first frustration they reveal, as if you had not considered the odds. True, for some it is hard (depending on your goals), and recognition would be nice, if only to shut-you-up, but money is not the goal. Money and recognition are nice to have, but creatives would rather live without those things than work for them. See as an example, the entire life of James Joyce.
  • It is a fine dream, but take care of your life first, so that way, when you do not need to work anymore, you can go for it. Again, money is never the goal. These people always think in terms of money (that famous glass castle). I find it ironic when religious people give this opinion. Jesus teaches that nothing robs a person more of who they are—and their salvation—than the cares of this world. They are literally asking you to say to God, whether they realize it or not, I know you made me for this, but you were wrong about the timing. Trust me, God is on the side of those whom obey his call, and not with those who heed worldly-wisdom (common sense). Heaven’s wisdom never has and never will make sense to the ways of the world.
  • It does not pay well. Blah, again, it is always about money. No writer writes for money; no painter paints to be rich. Personally, I give away the wealth I already have. If I made a million from a book, I would not keep more than a couple years of expenses (if I needed them). Nothing frightens me more than arriving into old age with wealth and security, because I fulfilled someone else’s dream. The biggest lie America, ever told is that God wants you healthy and wealthy. No! God wants you humble, obedient, and kind to one another.
  • It sends the wrong message to your kids. What a foolish and hypocritical thing to say. Artists are not burn-outs: they have mortgages, they have families, they have financial goals too, but they, as best they can, resist this horrid ultra-capitalist attention-economy. I want my kids to be themselves, and not what the world tells them they should be. I want them to make smart decisions, but not decisions to fit-in. They will be a great disappointment to me if they sacrifice spiritual and personal goals for financial and professional reasons. I would be ashamed!
  • Most people fail doing this. One, these people don’t actually know very many artists or they would realize that failure, as they regard it, is a subjective construct. I see failure as never writing, regardless of recognition. Some writers would say the opposite: to be published makes it real for them. Others, like Emily Dickinson, refused to be published until after her death (she thought fame might rupture her creativity). You are a writer now, and not, only, after someone reads your work.

These are only a few of the experiences we have all had, but every artist has their own unique resistance to work against. One thing God has been working with me on, is judge not, lest you be judged accordingly. Until recently, I never conceived this as being karma, but it is true: what you put out, you get back: if I criticize others, I invite criticism into my life; if I judge other’s life-style, they will judge me by mine. As an LGBTQ+ Christian (we won’t get into that), I have quite a bit of conflict in my heart. I should keep my mind off of others and onto God.

I have an unhealthy inner dialogue with my haters; they live in my head rent-free. Every new idea seems, internally, to have-its-say against them (family). I confess to being human: I want justification, I want to be believed in, I want support, I want respect, but it is not going to happen. It takes courage to be who you are, when you have to go it alone. You cannot please everyone, so focus on your inner-circle of support. At some point, we all need to give up on wanting to please everyone. This is my prayer:

Lord, I worry about how others think of me, how they see me, and how they unapprove of my efforts. Lord, you know I spent years, a decade, trying it their way, giving all of myself to corporate work-culture, collecting accolades from work-achievements, saving more money than I need, concerning myself with the cares of this world, worrying over my future, planning everything down to the last detail. I did not know, when I could no longer be who everyone else wanted me to be that I would feel so rejected. I believed their love ran deeper than it did. I did everything right for years, exactly as it was suppose to be, and where did it get me? It got me one year ago, last week, in the ER, wanting to take my own life. I can’t go back to pretending to be someone I am not, and they can’t support me on this journey. Jesus, I trust you, and I give all of myself up to you. You are my only true friend. You have blessed me with the ability and opportunity to go after what you created me for, and I will not say no this time; I will write for you. You are worth all the hurt; you are the object of my complete devotion. Thank you for my wife, whom is my greatest, next to you, support and best friend. Reveal to me how I can be, everyday, the man she prays for. Thank you for my children. Reveal to me, Lord, how I am to raise them to seek you above all else. Thank you for my doubters. Reveal to me Lord, how I can glorify you with the work you have called me to do. Lord, thank you for creating me. Lord, thank you for pushing me forward, when I want to give up.

-Amen

Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk. Keep writing friends!

Other Personal Posts:

Picking A Genre

I am often asked what genre I will write when it is time to carve out my debut novel. This question is asked at the beginning of every semester, and I never have a straight answer. My taste in literature extends beyond a single-niche interest: I enjoy writing historical fiction, literary fiction, and fantasy. Picking a genre, fortunately, is not something I must do today. I have a year left of school, and as a stay at home father, with two kids under two, my time is better put to use experimenting. One of my new year’s resolutions is to publish two short-form (flash fiction) pieces in a literary magazine. This way, my degree and career launch simultaneously.

Picking a genre is like picking a wife, you can only know which is the one, after dating a few different ideas.

The truth is I do not know, yet, the genre of my first novel. Picking a genre is like picking a wife, you can only really know which is the one, after dating a few different ideas. In keeping with the dating metaphor, if I had a type, it would be between literary and historical fiction—I read them the most. My influencers are the great modernist authors. As a result, my craft tends to lean existential.

Life Update: My last year of school began yesterday. I am taking 15 credit hours this semester; 12 credit hours are writing courses. I have a lot of work to do, but I am excited; I love school! Our little girl is a week old now, and our son won’t stop giving her kisses. Our home, right now, is so full of love, I can hardly believe the state of affairs our country is in; my wife and I are enjoying an other-worldly season of love.

Related Post:

Book Review: DIY MFA

DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community by Gabriela Pereira

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The secret is to persist until everyone has given up and you’re the only one left standing.”

Gabriela Pereira

These are words inspired. DIY MFA is a great craft reference; Pereira covers the entire writing process from zero to hero. What I liked most was the additional materials, easily downloadable, which come with the book. I am a creative writing major, and I found Pereira’s insights often matched what I am taught with my degree. She compacted into less than 300 pages, my entire degree; my $60,000 education for a $13.99 book on Apple’s book store. Okay, okay, maybe not quite like that, but it does cover a great deal of what a writer must know.

Probably, my greatest gain from DIY MFA is her unique revision pyramid. In addition, I believe her subway plotting method to be revolutionary, because I think traditionally taught ‘mind mapping’ is a horrid and useless exercise. We all have our own unique preferences.


Do not let the book title fool you, for Pereira is not against MFA’s. She earned one herself. I plan to earn mine as well. However, found within these pages is invaluable material on how to navigate the writer’s challenges from ‘idea’ to ‘hiring an agent.’ If it was not for this book, despite my looming English (in creative writing) degree, I would have no clue about what happens once school is done.

This book is for the writer recently started out, but will be a great tool for even the most accomplished author. I recommend both novice and well-published writers to read DIY MFA.

Happy Writing.
W. Alexander, www.w-alexander.com

View all my reviews

More Craft Reference:

Book Review: The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every writer should have a copy of The Elements of Style on their bookshelf. You will find it the most useful book on composition ever written. I do not say that lightly either. I am not sure how I, a senior English and Writing: Creative Writing major, had never heard of it until recently, but I suppose Providence has its own timing. Ever since I got serious about my writing, I have devoured every writing book I find. If you are serious about cleaning up your prose and grammar, this book is for you! Seriously, where has this book been all my life?

Related Post


Like most readers, I devour reviews, and I can see most reviewers learned of Strunk and White, in freshmen English. I only learned of this book because a professor recommended it to me privately. Thank God she did, because this book is amazing. I like that it is short, contrite, and practical, because unfortunately, most composition books are replete with an author’s opinion on writing. I like that element with other books, but sometimes the writer just needs to see what they are looking for, apply it, and get back to their process. I promise The Elements of Style will be a great addition to your library. I would consider it an essential book for any writers’ toolkit.

I can see, now, why many authors revere Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style as their holy book. I have fallen in line with the crowd here; I am converted. I will use this book for the rest of my life. I, also, purchased the workbook in order to build on my improvement, and study the style of the masters: Victor Hugo, Jane Austen, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and others.

I recommend this book to both the novice and expert writer.

What about you? What Style books do you recommend I read? Comment Below.

View all my reviews

Related Posts: