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Author Annie Dillard ("The Writing Life," 1989) was asked by a student, "Do you think I could be a writer?" Dillard's response: "Do you like sentences?" According to Stanley Fish, author of "How to Write a Sentence," it's as important for writers to genuinely like sentences as it is for great painters to like paint. For those who enjoy an effective sentence and all that it involves, this short (160 page) book is insightful, interesting and entertaining. For those who consider reading or writing a chore, perhaps this book can help one's interest level and motivation regarding sentences, though the author's intended audience is clearly those with a genuine interest in writing.
Fish would seem to be well qualified to write, having taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, as any student who has suffered with a highly qualified--yet thoroughly boring--professor knows, a significant part of the education/communication process involves instilling motivation. That's where Fish shines. If it might seem that a whole book on sentences has to be boring, Stanley Fish quickly overcomes this perception. His book is divided into 10 chapters: (1) Why Sentences?; (2) Why You Won't Find the Answer in Strunk and White [Strunk and White authored the classic, "The Elements of Style"]; (3) It's Not the Thought That Counts [nothing like a little provocation to get us interested]; (4) What Is a Good Sentence?; (5) The Subordinating Style; (6) The Additive Style; (7) The Satiric Style: The Return of Content; (8) First Sentences; (9) Last Sentences; and (10) Sentences That Are About Themselves (Aren't They All?).
Author Fish includes many examples of powerful sentences from a very wide range of writers, such as Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Cicero, Lewis Carroll, Michel de Montaigne, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens and others. Here's one illustrative example from John Updike: Describing the home run Ted Williams hit at his last at-bat in Boston's Fenway Park on September 28, 1960, Updike wrote, "It was in the books while it was still in the sky." Think about that for a minute.
In conclusion, Stanley Fish is an enthusiastic writer, and he manages to convey and transmit his enthusiasm for writing clear, effective sentences in this highly readable book. If you are interested in writing (and reading), this book is worth your careful consideration.
UPDATE on January 29, 2011: I wrote the above from the viewpoint of the reader contemplating buying this book for his or her own use. As I think more about the book, however, there's another possibility worth exploring. Specifically, this book could make a fine graduation (or other) gift to a niece, nephew or friend's child. First, it's short and easy to read, which means it might actually get read. Second, good writing is important in any profession. Third, the book helps reinforce the point that if you want to get good at something, it pays to study experts in the field. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the book supports the point that success in writing--as in virtually all endeavors--comes from practice, practice, practice. That's a pretty useful message to send any student.
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What I like about this book, what I really like, is how Stanley Fish cares about good writing. Fish's love for sentences shines from the first page to the last; it could not be more pronounced. HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE starts well enough, as Fish relays how a great piece of writing finds itself at the mercy of great sentences. In the first four chapters, the reader learns a few basic (somewhat technical) parts of a sentence, and how these little parts -- often taken for granted by inexperienced readers -- become building blocks to masterpieces (Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald). The next three chapters examine three different "styles" of sentences. The styles are Subordinating, Additive, Satiric, names chosen arbitrarily by Fish himself. These chapters give examples of each style from famous writers. The book rounds out with a chapter on "first sentences" (from famous books) and another on "last sentences."
In my opinion, the book contains one serious flaw.
Fish believes that good writing starts with sentence templates and ends when the writer fills in the templates with content. Fish backs his thesis with example after example of "great" sentences that adhere to his templates. Fish claims that there are a finite number of templates that can be filled with an infinite combination of words, the content. As an exercise, Fish asks the reader to "copy" the structure of simple sentences (John ate meat -- subject, verb, object) and then to fill in the template with more complex words and phrases, until the student's sentence becomes 100 words or more. In this way, Fish claims, the student may learn the craft of writing.
Such advice is boloney.
Content drives writing. Sentence style may be a necessary condition of good writing, but content drives the style, not the other way around. Not only does content drive the style of a sentence, it drives the structure of paragraphs and entire bodies of work. If every writer found a style first and then stuffed their content into (sentence, paragraph, large-scale) templates, then good writers would still be writing like they just stepped out of 9th grade English class. Thankfully, and for the sake of his book, Fish's own writing does not conform to his conventions. Fish seems to have rationalized how good writing works, but he doesn't seem to realize that he uses more intuition than he realizes.
What strikes me funny is that Fish gives example after example of what he claims to be great sentences. These sentences all appear in famous work written by famous writers. Time after time, in example after example, Fish falls victim to the same Post Hoc fallacy with which so many "writing critics" blind their ability to analyze good writing (and in turn limit their ability to improve as writers themselves). The blinded critic, Fish being no exception, finds a piece of writing already considered good by general consensus and then proceeds to explain "why" it is good.
I'll give an example from Chapter 7, "The Satiric Style." Fish uses an example from J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words.
Austin: "And we must at all costs avoid over-simplification [ironically enough], which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of philosophers if it were not their occupation."
Fish spends an entire page analyzing this sentence and creating a sentence of his own, based on Austin's template, until finally he comes to this conclusion about his imitation: "Is there a formula here? Yes...Not as snappy and whiplike as Austin's sentence, but in the ballpark."
This book does not preach Picasso, folks. This book advocates imitation. Ladies and gentlemen, take your body and imagine it sliding gracefully and comfortably into a tailor-made Ralph Lauren suit. Next, imagine yourself stuffed into a $99 Wal-Mart special. What would you rather wear? How would you rather write?