Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like a Writer is a writing guide by American writer Francine Prose, published in 2006.

Reading Like a Writer
Cover of the first edition
AuthorFrancine Prose
Cover artistRoberto de Viqde Cumptich
CountryUnited States
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback)
Pages275 pp
808/.02 22
LC ClassPE1408 .P774 2006


Subtitled "A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them," — Prose shares how she developed her writing craft through writing and reading. She uses examples from literature to demonstrate how fictional elements, such as character and dialogue, can be mastered.


  • Chapter One: Close Reading

Prose discusses the question of whether writing can be taught. She answers the question by suggesting that although writing workshops can be helpful, the best way to learn to write is to read. Closely reading books, Prose studied word choice and sentence construction. Close reading helped her solve difficult obstacles in her own writing.

  • Chapter Two: Words

Prose encourages the reader to slow down and read every word. She reminds the reader that words are the "raw material out of which literature is crafted." Challenging the reader to stop at every word, she suggests the following question be asked: "What is the writer trying to convey with this word?"

  • Chapter Three: Sentences

Prose discusses how "the well made sentence transcends time and genre." She believes the writer who is concerned about what constitutes a well-constructed sentence is on the right path. Prose mentions the importance of mastering grammar and how it can improve the quality of a writer's sentence. In this chapter, she also discusses the use of long sentences, short sentences, and rhythm in prose.

  • Chapter Four: Paragraphs

Prose discusses that, just as with sentence construction, the writer who is concerned about paragraph construction is stepping in the right direction. She states that the writer who reads widely will discover there are no general rules for building a well-constructed paragraph, but "only individual examples to help point [the writer] in a direction in which [the writer] might want to go."

  • Chapter Five: Narration

When determining point of view, Prose says audience is an important factor. She gives examples from literature of point-of-view variations. First person and third person are discussed, and even an example of writing fiction in second person is given.

  • Chapter Six: Character

Using examples from the works of Heinrich von Kleist and Jane Austen, Prose discusses how writers can develop characterization. She mentions that Kleist, in his "The Marquise of O—" ignores physical description of the characters, but instead "tells us just as much as we need to know about his characters, then releases them into the narrative that doesn't stop spinning until the last sentence . . ." Excerpts from other pieces of literature are used to show how action, dialogue and even physical description can help develop characterization.

  • Chapter Seven: Dialogue

Prose begins this chapter by dispelling the advice that writers should improve and clean up dialogue so it sounds less caustic than actual speech. She believes this idea on dialogue can be taken too far and that dialogue can be used to reveal not only the words on the surface, but the many motivations and emotions of the characters underneath the words.

  • Chapter Eight: Details

Using examples from literature, Prose explains how one or two important details can leave a more memorable impression on the reader than a barrage of description.

  • Chapter Nine: Gestures

Prose argues that gestures performed by fictional characters should not be "physical clichés" but illuminations that move the narrative.

  • Chapter Ten: Learning from Chekhov

Prose gives examples of what she has learned from reading Anton Chekhov. As a creative writing teacher, she would disseminate advice to her students after reading their stories. As a fan of Chekhov, she would read his short stories and find examples of how he would successfully break the "rules" of fiction writing, contradicting something she recently told her students to do in their writing projects. Prose also discusses how Chekhov teaches the writer to write without judgment; she tells how Chekhov practiced not being the "judge of one's characters and their conversations but rather the unbiased observer."

  • Chapter Eleven: Reading for Courage

Prose discusses the fears writers may have: revealing too much of themselves in their writing; resisting the pressures that writers must write a certain way; determining whether or not the act of writing is worth it when one considers the state of the world. She concludes her book by stating that the writer may fear creating "weeds" instead of "roses." Continuing the metaphor, she says reading is a way for the writer to see how other gardeners grow their roses.

  • Books to Be Read Immediately

Prose includes a list of book recommendations, many of which have selections from those that are used as examples for the concepts she discusses.

Books to be ReadEdit

Here are the books in mostly chronological order. The chapters in which they are discussed are in italics.

Sophocles (trans. Sir George Young) Oedipus Rex

Anonymous (trans. Dorothy L. Sayers) The Song of Roland

Miguel de Cervantes (trans. Tobias Smollett) Don Quixote

William Shakespeare King Lear

John Milton Paradise Lost

Samuel Richardson Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded

Johnson Samuel The Life of Savage Sentences

Gibbon Edward Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Austen Jane Sense and Sensibility Paragraphs Character

Austen Jane Pride and Prejudice Paragraphs Character

Von Kleist Heinrich (trans. Martin Greenberg) The Marquise of O---- and Other Stories Sentences Character

Stendhal (trans. Roger Gard) The Red and the Black Paragraphs

Balzac Honore de (trans. Kathleen Raine) Cousin Bette

Gogol Nikolai (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) Dead Souls: A Novel Courage

Dickens Charles Dombey and Son Narration

Dickens Charles Bleak House

Bronte Emily Wuthering Heights

Turgenev Ivan Sergeevich (trans. Isaiah Berlin) First Love

Eliot George Middlemarch Character

Melville Herman Bartleby the Scriverner Paragraphs

Melville Herman Moby Dick

Melville Herman Benito Cereno

Flaubert Gustave (trans. Geoffrey Wall) Madame Bovary Courage

Flaubert Gustave (trans. Robert Baldick) A Sentimental Education Character

Dostoyevsky Fyodor (trans. Constance Garnett) Crime and Punishment Narration Courage

Tolstoy Leo (trans. David McDuff) The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories

Tolstoy Leo (trans. Aylmer Maude) The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories Courage

Tolstoy Leo (trans. Constance Garnett) Anna Karenina

Tolstoy Leo (trans. Constance Garnett) War and Peace

Tolstoy Leo (trans. Rosemary Edmonds) Resurrection

Alcott Louisa May Little Women

Twain Mark The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Narration

Baldwin James Vintage Baldwin Paragraphs

James Henry The Portrait of a Lady Gesture

James Henry The Turn of the Screw Narration

Chekhov Anton (trans. Constance Garnett) Tales of Anton Chekhov: Volumes 1-13 Detail Gesture Chekhov Courage

Chekhov Anton (trans. Constance Garnett) A Life in Letters Detail

Strunck William The Elements of Style, Illustrated Sentences

Proust Marcel (trans. Lydia Davis) Swann's Way Gesture

Stein Gertrude The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Sentences

Woolf Virginia On Being Ill Sentences

Joyce James Dubliners Sentences Gesture

Kafka Franz (trans. Malcolm Pasley) Metamorphosis and Other Stories Detail

Kafka Franz The Judgement Gesture

Kafka Franz In the Penal Colony

Stout Rex Plot it Yourself Paragraphs

Mansfield Katherine Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield Words Gesture

Chandler Raymond The Big Sleep Sentences Gesture

Akutagawa Ryunosuke (trans. M. Kuwata and Tashaki Kojima) Rashomon and Other Stories

Paustovsky Konstantin Years of Hope: The Story of a Life Paragraphs

West Rebecca The Birds Fall Down Sentences

West Rebecca Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia Sentences

Babel Isaac (trans. Walter Morrison) The Collected Stories Paragraphs Courage

Hartley L.P. The Go-Between Gesture

Fitzgerald F. Scott The Great Gatsby Words

Fitzgerald F. Scott Tender is the Night Words

Hemingway Ernest The Sun Also Rises Sentences

Hemingway Ernest A Moveable Feast Sentences

Bowen Elizabeth The House in Paris Detail

Nabokov Vladimir Lectures on Russian Literature Chekhov

Nabokov Vladimir Lolita Narration Dialogue

Mandelstam Nadezdha Hope Against Hope: A Memoir Words

Stead Christina The Man Who Loved Children Dialogue

Green Henry Doting Dialogue

Green Henry Loving Dialogue

Beckett Samuel The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 Gesture Courage

Steegmuller Francis Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait

Bowles Paul Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings

Cheever John The Stories of John Cheever Sentences

Jarrell Randall Pictures from an Institution

Bowles Jane Two Serious Ladies Narration Dialogue

Rulfo Juan (trans. Margaret Sayers Peden) Pedro Paramo Courage

Taylor Peter A Summons to Memphis Narration

Salinger J.D. Franny and Zooey Detail

Gaddis William The Recognitions

Gallant Mavis Paris Stories Narration

Calviino Italo Cosmicomics

Fox Paula Desperate Characters Paragraphs

Herbert Zbigniew (trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott) Selected Poems Courage

O'Connor Flannery Wise Blood Narration Gesture

O'Connor Flannery A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories Words

O'Connor Flannery Collected Stories Detail

Yates Richard Revolutionary Road Words

Marquez Gabrial Garcia One Hundred Years of Solitude Paragraphs

Marquez Gabrial Garcia The Autumn of the Patriarch Paragraphs

Trevor William The Collected Stories

Trevor William Fools of Fortune

Trevor William The Children of Dynmouth

Elkin Stanley Searches and Seizures Sentences

Brodkey Harold Stories in an Almost Classical Mode Narration Dialogue

Barthelme Donald Sixty Stories

Munro Alice Selected Stories Words

LeCarre John A Perfect Spy Dialogue

Roth Philip American Pastoral Sentences

Roth Philip Philip Roth: Novels and Stories 1959-1962 Gesture

Johnson Diane Persian Nights Narration

Johnson Diane Le Divorce Narration

Pynchon Thomas Gravity's Rainbow

Carver Raymond Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories Sentences Paragraphs

Carver Raymond Cathedral

Dybek Stuart I Sailed with Magellan Narration

Williams Joy Escapes Dialogue

Spencer Scott A Ship Made of Paper

O'Brien Tim The Things They Carried Sentences

Baxter Charles Believers: A Novella and Stories Gesture

Gates David The Wonders of the Invisible World: Stories Dialogue

Johnson Denis Jesus' Son

Johnson Denis Angels Paragraphs

Tolstaya Tatyana Sleepwalker in a Fog Words

Wagner Bruce I'm Losing You Character

McInerney Jay Bright Lights, Big City Narration

Franzen Jonathan The Corrections Paragraphs

Eisenberg Deborah The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg Narration

Price Richard Freedomland Narration

St. Aubyn Edward Some Hope: A Trilogy Gesture

St. Aubyn Edward Mother's Milk Dialogue

Wood James Broken Estates: Essays on Literature and Belief

Diaz Junot Drown Gesture

Shteyngart Gary The Russian Debutante's Handbook Paragraphs

Packer ZZ Drinking Coffee Elsewhere Gesture

Pautovsky Konstantin (trans. Joseph Barnes) Years of Hope: The Story of a Life

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