It’s against the grain to say so, but for the life of me I can’t see why there’s so much gloating over Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Fish is well known and a leading light among the literati, and such connections may be the source of the gloating. I’ve enjoyed plenty of his essays and criticism. Someone must have asked him to turn his hand to writing a book about writing, he did it, and then the movers and shakers got it in their craw that this book would actually replace Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition). Early indications are that all the right places are praising the book.
But before I tip my cards for you to see what I’ve got, a brief summary:
In a nutshell, Fish argues writing is about sentences, which of course it is but yet isn’t. If you want to be a good writer, he says, you have to love sentences. Which I suppose is true. I’d say loving words is just as important, but I’ll give him his point. Good writing is about constructing sentences.
Then Fish goes about what might be called The Great Sentences Program. As Mortimer Adler and his cronies wanted to find The Great Books, Fish wants to find The Great Sentences. He doesn’t tell us enough about how we find Great Sentences or what makes a Great Sentence better than a Good Sentence.
Once we’ve got those Great Sentences, Fish suggests, we are to break them down to see what they do and why they work so well — he does this and does this expertly. Then we are to practice using them ourselves by using them as templates. He does this himself, and the irony of it is all is that his own examples aren’t that good, which makes using templates as molds an unattractive approach to writing well.
Before the jump: What’s your favorite book on writing? What are the top two or three elements of writing that you have learned? What do you think of using templates?
His examples are almost all too long to be quoted here but here’s one, from J.L. Austen: “And we must at all costs avoid over-simplification, which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of philosophers if it were not their occupation.” [Begin with a mild statement ... add something that heightens the mood and sharpens the tone ... before threat is made more explicit. Here's his example: "It's important not to be too late, which is a black mark on the records of employees and even more so on the records of ex-employers."]
Fish discusses what a sentence is (a structure of logical relationships – blech), what a good sentence is (his stuff on rhetorical impact is very good), breaks sentences into two sorts — subordinating and additive — adds a chp on the satiric style, and then has some great examples of first sentences and last sentences.
Fish is a master and this is a good book, and using the template to learn to write better is a good idea. But the book isn’t good enough because writing involves so much more. If a student comes to me to ask about how to write better, Fish would not appear in my top ten list. To be sure, Fish is right that the age-old #1 Strunk and White has become increasingly dated because of an older prescriptive grammar approach, but moving away from Strunk and White is not making writing better.
When it comes to writing better, I still recommend — hands down — William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.
Books on writing somehow make errors worse:
There’s a howler 2/3ds down p. 15: “If it is your goal is to write well-constructed sentences” — ah, the irony, and on p. 25, 4th line up, “to” is omitted. I’ve had my share of howlers and mistakes, so I empathize.