To improve your writing, try 'close reading'


I typically read a book a week; time permitting, I’ll read even more.

My tastes are catholic, with the exception of murder mysteries, which bore me. (Don’t email me suggestions; it’s a character flaw, I know.) I even post the lists of books I read each year on my blog. You can see 2015 part 1, here.

The only time I enjoyed the mystery genre was when I was pregnant. Hospitalized a month before delivery because I was expecting triplets, I plowed through every book written by mystery meisters Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. The resident who visited me each morning would check my current book and, around day seven, remarked, “This hospital allows you to read the work of other authors, you know.”

Once I was finally able to start reading again (about three years later, when the kids were finally out of diapers) I raced through novels—literary and non—as well as biographies, current affairs tomes and marketing books with an intensity that might look suspiciously like a mental illness.

Today, I’m going to recommend to you a book that I haven’t yet finished, but that based on the first three chapters I can highly recommend.

It’s called “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.” (If the idea of writing a book scares you, don’t let the second part of the title put you off.) This exquisitely written text is thoughtful, instructive and inspiring.

The author of 14 novels, four works of nonfiction and five children’s books, Francine Prose (I’m not making up the name, I promise) is in love with reading. She advocates what she calls “close reading” or, as she describes it, “the halting method of beginning at the beginning, lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhance(s) and contribute(s) to the story as a whole.”

Download this free white paper to learn how to tell compelling stories that navigate through the noise, boost your brand and drive sales.

This type of slow reading, quite different from reading for plot in fiction or for information in non-fiction, can be extraordinarily useful to writers. By seeing how other authors handle words, sentences, paragraphs and details, you can learn a great deal that will inform your own writing.

By the way, those topics—words, sentences, paragraphs and details—are just three of the 11 chapter titles in Prose’s book.

Says Prose: “A friend told me that her students had complained that reading masterpieces made them feel stupid. But I’ve always found that the better the book I’m reading, the smarter I feel, or at least, the more able I am to imagine that I might, someday, become smarter.

“I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it had meant that I couldn’t read during the years it might take to complete a novel.”

Warning: The authors in which Prose is most interested—George Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens—are classical classics, although she also dips into more the contemporary waters of Philip Roth and John Le Carre.

Even if you choose not to read her book, be sure to experiment with her idea of close reading. If attacking an entire book this way seems too daunting, then try it with a top-quality magazine such as The New Yorker.

Just as musicians need to listen to music and gardeners need to look at trees and flowers, so, too, writers need to read. Reading is not just an idle entertainment-it offers the raw material for anyone who wants to write.

A version of this article first appeared on The Measurement Standard.