How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish

March 24, 2011

Description (from the publisher): Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. Stanley Fish appreciates fine sentences. The New York Times columnist and world-class professor has long been an aficionado of language: “I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, for sentences that make you say, ‘Isn’t that something?’ or ‘What a sentence!'” Like a seasoned sportscaster, Fish marvels at the adeptness of finely crafted sentences and breaks them down into digestible morsels, giving readers an instant play-by-play.

In this entertaining and erudite gem, Fish offers both sentence craft and sentence pleasure, skills invaluable to any writer (or reader). His vibrant analysis takes us on a literary tour of great writers throughout history—from William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Henry James to Martin Luther King Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Elmore Leonard. Indeed, How to Write a Sentence is both a spirited love letter to the written word and a key to understanding how great writing works; it is a book that will stand the test of time.

Liked:

  • Some of the information about different sentence styles (additive, satiric, subordinating) was interesting and useful. Prior to reading this book, I was completely unaware that single sentences had styles attached to them. But now I can identify these types of sentences when I see them, which is helpful.
  • I liked the exercises that Fish suggested, as well as the templates he used to get the reader started. I know that writing great sentences isn’t merely about filling in blanks on a template, but it was cool to learn how to mimic some popular styles.

Disliked:

  • For someone who proclaims to know a lot about sentences, Fish understood very little about how to write good ones himself. The second half of the book was so dense and filled with such convoluted constructions as to be practically unreadable. I skimmed the last quarter of the book because I got tired of having to reread each sentence several times in order to make sense of it. A halfway decent editor could have saved the publisher a lot of printers ink cartridges by eliminating at least some of the extraneous text.
  • I think Fish spent too much time analyzing and praising specific sentences in the second half of the book. I understand the need to include examples to underscore the various points he was trying to make, but seriously, he went on and on for two to three pages at a time about a single sentence. Come on!
  • I have a hard time believing that the great sentences Fish held up as shining examples were constructed as painstakingly as they were deconstructed by the author of this book. If every cited writer put that much time and energy into a single sentence, it’s a wonder they ever completed the tomes they were working on.

Rating:

I don’t often read books like How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish, but this one sounded like it might be a good way to learn a few basics about constructing well-written prose. Unfortunately, the book was only minimally useful and was bogged down by academic writing that would be more at home in a doctoral dissertation than in a piece intended for the general public. I give this 2 stars out of 5.

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