Francine Prose, interview in Reading Like a Writer
"There's something essentially sadistic about the whole process," Prose says in the interview included at the end of her book. "I mean, to sit there and have the love of your life -- your work -- something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers ..."
I remember what that is like, having taken several creative writing classes at Ohio University back in the 1960s. A decade later, having given up the idea of writing fiction, I attended a two-week seminar for editorial writers in Reston, Va., where the workshops were quite similar. Participants were told to critique the editorials written by other members of the group, and that usually meant finding fault.
Prose says that she much prefers teaching writing by teaching reading, and not just because the authors are not in the same room. Writers, like artists, can learn from the masters, and she is appalled at how little so many of her writing students have actually read. Sometimes, she says, she takes her students through a short story word by word, sentence by sentence. Why did the writer choose this particular word rather than another? "All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another," she writes. It may take weeks to get through a single short story in her class, but she thinks her students benefit from this close inspection of classic works of literature.
Beside, as Prose is the first to admit, you really can't teach good writers to become great writers. You can, however, teach them to become great readers.