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The Disturbing Amount of and Lack of Answers to a Simple Question

Readers often enter their desired source of new material with preconceived notions of what is and isn't good, what is or isn't correct, and what ideas should be expressed. Given these symptoms, the reader might find themselves suffering from one or more the terrible maladies that come with having been taught.

I don't actually think that it's inherently bad to pursue any form of education. I had good reason to do that for myself, and I do judge it to have been mostly fulfilling. I was lucky. For anyone who has followed Purposeful Prose for a long time, you will have an idea of where I stand on education for writers. Due to specific academic standards that we place upon writers, the fact that we prioritize writing to a standard, does not accommodate all writers. While academic standards can display a framework to follow and learn from, it is not the same framework that meets all writers (particularly creative writers) where they are. These standards are very American, very polarizing, and they change annually depending on what writers and editors have agreed upon.

Francine Prose is the author of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. She begins her work by exploring the question of whether creative writing can be taught. The best way that, she states, she knows of to answer that question is by explaining her own experiences as a student. "For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what's superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especially, cut, is essential. It's satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp" (Prose, 2006).

All of the choices that she's describing, those that would change the course of a given manuscript in terms of tone and execution of style, have to do with the context of her experience. Her experience has dictated to her the way in which she feels her language can best be expressed. However, the experience of cutting a sentence down to its concise form such that it can be more widely understood is a relatable one for any rhetor who revises.

Prose establishes her limits early, that her advice is solely based on her experience in writing and might not work for everyone. This precedes direct advice on how to best accommodate the different methods by which a writer's mind can work. Prose has found most productivity through workshops, a form that relies upon communication between participants and feedback from many people who have different senses of style as opposed to solely one teacher.

This is an incredibly productive form, but what of the contradicting advice? What of the kinds of advice that detract from the writer's purpose and is not substantiated with knowledge of how a writer learns? What of a writer who has not received any guidance on how to process different types of feedback and ultimately determine what will work best for them?

By no means do these questions denote a contradiction to Prose's advice, but they do offer some drawbacks to the workshop format, especially if handled improperly. Not all feedback will suit the aim of a given project. The most productive guidance on expression of language is personal and is dependent on individual intent, and while this can come from a workshop environment, it doesn't always. In sum, the process of writing is at its core dependent on how an individual's mind works.

"The more we read," says Prose, "the faster we can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book" (Prose, 2006). Again, the first form of advice that she gives to budding writers is to read. Like Steven Pinker, she not only tells them to read, but tells them why we should. These reasons tie to the specifications of our intentions and to the all-important discovering of new ways to read.

Close-reading can help people to determine what a given piece of writing means to them, sometimes working alongside or against meanings that are already agreed upon in academia. In the process of close-reading, even unintentionally doing so in leisurely settings, people determine how they want to come across, how they want to sound, and how they enter into conversation with a given piece.

Prose states that, when she was close-reading at a comfortable pace and was able to flesh out her conversation with a work, she was able to better create meaning that stemmed from that piece. Essentially, forms of education that necessitated finishing a work in a shorter amount of time were not helpful to her.

Additionally, when she found herself immersed in her specific graduate-level academia, she found that to be unhelpful to her writing. From what I understand, and this is an interpretation of her words, she found that her conversations with students whose focus was more on literary theories than the book were unhelpful because they were based on argument rather than interpretation. Different literary theories and facets of academia can change the way that people read specific books, but if those points of view are so altered that they lessen the enjoyment of those books, then a reader's interaction with their material instantly becomes less productive. I say this as someone who finds many of these theories to be fascinating.

Prose sought to foster that enjoyment in reading in her students, leading them to converse with the work and each other in more productive ways. There are so many ways to answer the question of whether creative writing can be taught simply because it is taught. There are so many answers that, Prose states, there are none. People who read know what they enjoy and writers have specific intentions for their work. Having a mentor or several is great. Learning through a workshop can be an enlightening experience. However, every writer's mind works differently and there are as of yet undiscovered writing styles that act beyond our scope of what "good" writing should be.

Francine Prose introduces her work very well, and I look forward to reading the further advice that she offers rhetors and readers.


Thank you to everyone who has offered their feedback on Purposeful Prose so far.

For anyone who wants to follow the conversation, I recommend purchasing Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them from your local independent bookstore. If you cannot, I recommend purchasing through this link. Proceeds from books sold through support local independent bookstores. After you make your purchase, your email receipt will tell you exactly which bookstore(s) you've supported! This article is not sponsored.

If you would like to support Purposeful Prose, you can become a member! Members can engage directly with posts by "liking", commenting, and posting on my forum. You can also follow Purposeful Prose on LinkedIn. If you have a suggestion as to what I should cover in the future, preferred methods of contact are through the live chat and email.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.

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1 Comment

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Jun 14, 2022

Reading is the one consistent piece of advice that I have heard for those who want to write (especially creatively). Prose's work seems to be a valuable resource, and such a good topic for this blog. You are so right to point out that there is no one single method/workshop session/course that works for everyone. Thanks for introducing this author!

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