Reading Like a Writer

A lawyer friend once confessed to me that she indulges in reading historical romances but feels guilty about it. She had been taught as a lawyer that if she has any free time (apparently a foreign concept in the profession), she is supposed to be “reading the law.” She is supposed to be as fully immersed in her vocation as she can be, even using her leisure time to grow more familiar with case law.

I suppose a similar attitude can apply to the craft of writing. It seems to me that I should read everything I do as a potential instruction for my own writing. I don’t mean that I should read “how to write” books. (Based on those I have looked at, most seem to be snake oil anyway.) Rather, I should read only the best examples of the writing I aspire to and then study in detail the craft of those writers. How did they turn a phrase? Why is the sentence structure the way it is? Why did he/she select this word or that? Why this form of narration rather than another? And so on.

Lofty stuff, of course (and sometimes you just want to read for pure enjoyment). I like to think that I read everything with a writer’s eye, and I often find things in my reading that I especially like or respect (or dislike and disdain). This tells me I am paying attention. Much of the time, however, I just get caught up in the story and stop giving rigorous attention to the writing. That’s another reason for re-reading certain books, I think.

In another blog, I ran across a reference to a book by Francine Prose called Reading Like a Writer. This work looks at some of the very best writing across the centuries and picks it apart to analyze why it works. It forces the reader to slow down and consider the words on the page. The chapter titles include Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, Gestures, Learning from Checkov, and Reading for Courage. The book ends with a list of Books to be Read Immediately. I especially like that last chapter title, for it implies that there isn’t a moment to lose in this effort we call creative writing.

I’ve ordered a copy of this book. I can hardly wait to begin reading it. Slowly.

(Don’t take my word for it. Here’s the Wikipedia reference for the book. It includes several links as well.)

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