On Writing Well

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://missional.ca Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    You can’t lose with “On Writing” by Stephen King. Seriously, it took me by surprise.

  • http://jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    A heary AMEN! to Jamie’s endorsement (comment #1) of Stephen King’s book on writing. King deplores “template” writing, outlining, going to workshops on writing, etc.

  • http://jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    OOPS! Comment #2 Should read HEARTY, not heary. Duh.

  • Taylor G

    “What are the top two or three elements of writing that you have learned?”

    We learned in preperation and delivery of sermons to weave concepts thoughout an entire sermon. I like doing that in essays as well.

    It may sound pretty basic, but I like to start off a small non-fiction essay by telling a quick interesting story.

  • DJ

    I think I’ve read Strunk & White at least 10 times…and I’m not exaggerating. It’s been a few years, though. I think I gave my copy away. I’ll need to get another.

    DJ|AMDG

  • http://www.listeningpostministries.com Jim

    @Scot: would you mind sharing what you think are the 10 best books on writing?

  • Glenn Sunshine

    Herm Struck, my writing prof at Michigan State, told me that the average undergrad can cut 1/3 of the length of a paper without sacrificing content, and the paper would be better for it. Generally speaking, the more concise writing is, the clearer and the more punch it has.

  • Jesse

    Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams – now in a 10th edition

  • Michael

    Scot: I’m with Jim (#6), I’d love to see your list of the ten best books on writing.

  • Greg Clark

    And Stephen King recommends….. (wait for it) Strunk and White. King is more entertaining than Strunk and White.

  • MatthewS

    Taylor G,

    Did you read Bryan Chapell? I believe he calls it “exegetical rain”. Exegetical rain means introducing important terms in an opening illustration and then raining them down into the explanation and application and on into the conclusion. I don’t always get this just right but I like the idea. It sharpens the focus.

  • Craig Beard

    For the nuts and bolts, I’ll agree with Jesse (#8) — Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams. But Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Anne Lamott “Bird by Bird” are a joy to read.

  • http://www.davidsarahdark.blogspot.com/ David Dark

    Favorite Stanley Fish sentence: “What you believe is what you see is what you are is what you do.”

  • Albion

    Although dated, Strunk & White is like learning the basics of painting or the grammar of a language. Once that’s mastered, do what you want.

    Read anything C.S. Lewis wrote. I think he said that if you can say something in five words instead of ten, say it in five. Pare things down. I think that’s the most helpful advice I’ve ever read about writing.

    Bryan Garner and Justice Scalia wrote a very good book called Making Your Case. Scalia’s politics aside, he’s a very good writer. Also Garner’s The Elements of Legal Style. (Garner says lawyers have a “history of wretched writing.” He’s right.)

    And, finally, avoid gimmicks. (I’m.Looking.At.You.Scot.) The occasional foray into typographical excess is fine but too much of a novel thing can become a bad and distracting thing.

  • DAK

    I’m with Glenn (#7 above) and his MSU prof; the principle of economy in writing is a valuable lesson to learn and practice. I stress that with my writing students at MSU. I believe it was Blaise Pascal who said something like, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.” This is one of the best lessons I have learned; it has informed my writing and made it better.

  • http://www.everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Stephen King – “On Writing” is gold.

    Lessons:
    (1) Honesty (which is far more difficult than you would think),
    (2) Story (“it is the tale not he who tells it”),
    (3) No adverbs,
    (4) Using simply “He said” is divine,
    and (5) “Kill your darlings.”

  • Bob Smallman

    My first quarter in seminary, someone turned me on to Strunk & White, and I found it a godsend. (And imagine my surprise when I realized that my freshman college English professor had “borrowed” freely from Elements without bothering to tell us!)

    “Simplify.”

  • http://kylejnolan.tumblr.com Kyle Nolan

    George Orwell – Politics and the English Language

  • http://jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    I think Mark Twain’s comment on getting the right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

  • http://kylejnolan.tumblr.com Kyle Nolan

    Although I still think this is the best advice you can get (which explains why it’s been my desktop for most of the past year):

    http://bit.ly/hzgUU7

  • Taylor G

    MatthewS Yes! Bryan was my first prep. and del. instructor. He wrote a pretty good book on writing sermons as I recall.

  • http://rbrague.rhymeswithplague.com Bob Brague

    In the same vein as “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” and its inevitable successor, “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers,” is this one: “Those who can’t write, write about writing.” (We could argue forever over whether what I just wrote needs all those commas.)

    I’m being only semi-facetious.

    Actually, next to Strunk & White, I like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer best.

  • http://rbrague.rhymeswithplague.com Bob Brague

    Writers don’t just set words on paper in a vacuum. They need to have a reason for writing. Everyone, even people who don’t care for fiction (Scot, take note), could benefit from reading Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction. It’s a collection of twenty-six original essays on writing, edited by Will Blythe and published by Little, Brown and Company.

  • andy

    My top 5 in no particular order:

    “Plain Style” by Christopher Lasch

    “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss

    “Elements of Style” Strunk and White

    “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler (because writing well begins with reading well)

    “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser

  • http://www.thedarkglass.net Anthony

    I am going to add a second to “On Writing Well” by Zinsser. I thought this book was something of a classic, and so I am a little surprised it did not appear more than it did in the comments above. Perhaps it’s a little known treasure. Regardless of how well it’s known, it is a treasure, and among its many lessons the one I will share here, is the need for writers (particularly American writers) to remove verbal clutter from their writing. Perhaps, this idea is akin to Wilde’s “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

  • http://mikalatos.blogspot.com Matt Mikalatos

    This is a great review. I’ve been scratching my head over why so many people are in rapture over this book. It’s nice to see another perspective.

    As for writing books, my wife surprised me with a beat up copy of Flannery O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manners,” which has several essays about writing (fiction of course). It’s like a devotional book for writers, with profound insights and deep thoughts for consideration.

    Mr. Fish will be glad to know that the sentences are also excellent.

  • http://inchristus.wordpress.com Paul D. Adams

    “All good writing is re-writing.” This is a relentless principle that has proven itself time and again. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve re-visited my essays only to find better words, tighter syntax, and neater ways to unpack topics. Everything I write is a moving target and, hopefully, improves with each iteration.

    Thus, using templates may prove useful for structure and style, but the structure and the style must always serve the prose and never vice versa.


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