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How to Write a Sentence, by Stanley Fish

In his guide for writers, How to Write a Sentence, literary theorist Stanley Fish outlines a method for improving your prose style, showing readers how to dissect and learn from famous sentences of the past. His book is concise, lucid, and eloquent. But does his method work? Daniel Wallace puts it to the test.


how_to_write_a_sentenceIt is already a commonplace, in essays and books on the craft of writing, that if you want to write good fiction, you must be able to write good sentences. The question Annie Dillard asks aspiring writers in The Writing Life—“Do you like sentences?”—is echoed, in longer form, by Francine Prose in the early pages of Reading Like a Writer. Rick Moody, in his introduction to Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories, twice states that, “It’s all about the sentences,” a claim given poetic form by Gary Lutz, who calls the sentence the “one true theater of endeavor.” Indeed, the sentence is the most concrete unit of written prose, containing a definite beginning and end, the place where writers lay out logical connections between the parts of speech. We think in many shapes, but we write in sentences. Whatever we attempt in English prose—whether essay, tale, or recipe—unless it is unusually experimental, must be made of sentences.

If you accept this argument about sentences, you will probably want to know how to improve your own. I do not believe that skill at writing is purely an innate faculty, a talent, that no form of instruction can help. If true, it would make fiction writing a very unusual art form, a skill that, unlike painting or piano playing, could not be improved by learning formal principles. While nothing can take the place of continual practice, it’s likely that certain technical aspects of prose style can simply be explained. And there is considerable evidence, collected in Robert J. Connor’s essay “The Erasure of the Sentence,” that at least for college-level composition students, studying some focused method of sentence formulation (Connor describes research carried out on three separate methods) does measurably improve one’s writing. The question is, therefore, which are the crucial principles to learn, and how best to ease their descent into the unconscious places where writing takes shape. If you start reading up on sentence-making, you may find, as I have, that often the more explicitly technical guides are not so easy to read, and in essays where sentence-making is a side topic, tips are often dropped without introduction or elaboration, as if mere reminders of some comprehensive bible of sentence-making, some writer’s general guidebook which does not actually exist. Kyle Minor sums up this predicament well, I think, with the comic title of his one-off blog post, “Seminar in Sentence-Making #36.” And so I was excited to discover that Stanley Fish, a literary theorist I have long grudgingly admired, had published a book called, How to Write a Sentence (HarperCollins). In this slim guide, Fish outlines a method of improving one’s writing by imitation, giving many famous model sentences and suggesting ways to learn from them.

the_trouble_with_principleI first discovered Stanley Fish while reading the massive anthology Critical Theory Since Plato. Even in all those centuries of writers, Fish stood out as being particularly argumentative, structuring his essays around hard-nosed, uncompromising either/or choices. If you are curious how this approach has irritated many fellow thinkers, a good example is Terry Eagleton’s review of Fish’s later book The Trouble with Principle, in which Eagleton describes Fish as having “the ferociously competitive instinct of a small boy.” It was a great relief, therefore, to find that in How to Write a Sentence, Fish seems calm, modest to a fault, and ecumenical, his admiration ranging from Gertrude Stein to Martin Luther King. Fish argues that sentences, not words, are the building blocks of prose, because it is the connections, the “inexorable logic of syntactic structures,” that give words meaning. He believes that the best way to improve your sentence-making is to study the syntactic form of good sentences and then imitate those forms with practice exercises, the way musicians do scales. Place whatever content you like into a preset syntactic framework, and allow the syntax to settle in your head. Form, and only form, is the key to better writing; worry about content later.

Fish gives as a starting point a remarkable sentence by John Updike, describing an instantly-famous Ted Williams home run:

It was in the books while it was still in the air.

Fish explains that because the sentence connects two seemingly very separate states with the word “while,” Updike is able to assert that they occur simultaneously, or are somehow identical. Fish invites his readers to try this form, and offers this example: “It was in my stomach before it was off the shelf.” The goal is not to sound like Updike, but to see the logical framework that makes a particular sentence possible and learn it.

What makes Fish’s book so interesting is that, rather than just presenting an arbitrary series of models, he classifies sentences into two syntactical families: the subordinating and additive styles. Subordinating sentences make planned logical steps, revealing the author’s command of sequence and rhetoric, hinting at the calm, masterful mind that was at work in their creation. Fish gives this example from Henry James:

When the porter’s wife (she used to answer the house-bell), announced, “A gentleman—with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had in those days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediate vision of sitters.

We should then study the steps this sentence takes, and copy them, over and over, one imitation after another, allowing the syntax to drift into our unconscious’s store of patterns. Here’s me putting the Fish method to work:

When the cantina (the one place in the town I did not expect to meet other backpackers) filled with a foreign woman’s laughter, without looking up from the Herman Hesse novel that I seemed, through that whole summer, unable to even begin, I understood, as if now fluent in the language of my own fate, that I would have to go back to Todos Santos.

In contrast, the additive style presents one thing after another, like the snapshots of a camera. Its art lies in hiding its precision, as if just recording, any old way, what’s out there in the world or within a stream of thought: this is Hemingway and Stein, Woolf and Ford. It piles clause on clause, allowing details to accumulate, to repeat, slipping between them only the unassertive “and.”
From Hemingway:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

Here is my attempt to duplicate Hemingway’s use of conjunctions and simple adjectives:

In the town’s square there were horse-carts and market stalls, loud and crowded in the afternoon, and the locals were noisy and content, with no one buying a thing.

It’s an appealing tool for aspiring writers, this syntax imitation method, and one that might make a good warm-up before each day’s work session. These imitations may also reveal certain remarks or phrases that give a writer trouble. For instance, in my cantina sentence, I attempted parallels to James’s “for the wish was father to the thought” many, many times.

But I have some reservations with the Fish technique. As his book goes on, Fish starts to worry that his division of a sentence’s form and its content may not hold, that the two may be linked, one always part of the other. He escapes this worry by surrendering to it, abandoning the study of pure form for a different topic: novels’ opening sentences. His study of great opening lines is so good, so insightful—showing the way a novel’s first words prepare the reader for the entire story that is to come—that I longed to teach it to a creative writing class. However, I can’t help feeling that Fish has simply reasserted his love of either/or, his obsession with dividing everything in two, to the detriment of his book’s argument. At the outset Fish posits that the only form relevant to sentences is syntax. Everything else is content, and the content side of the equation becomes more enormous and chaotic as Fish’s examination continues, because he attempts to contain in it all sorts of things better studied as form.

Sentences have rhythm, for example—iambs and the other measured steps of prosody are a kind of form. And a writer’s diction sets the tone as much as how she arranges the words. One of the reasons my imitation of Hemingway doesn’t sound much like the original is that my narrator offers a little witticism at the end, a sentiment foreign to Hemingway’s sentence, and surely, in the comprehensive anatomy of sentence-making that has yet to be written, these kinds of choices will be explained, even if imprecisely, in formal ways. Consider the richly allusive tone of Fish’s first model sentence, the one by John Updike, “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” Had Updike written, instead of the reverential, mysterious word “books,” something like,

It was in the hall of fame while it was still in the sky,

the sentence, although syntactically unchanged, would have sounded smug and small. Many of the great sentences Fish cites have this powerfully evocative quality, gesturing at and pulling in other words, other books. Quoting Virginia Woolf on the problem of seeing a sign on a train saying, “Do not lean out of the window,” Fish merely points out that it lacks “causal links”:

At the first reading, the useful meaning, the surface meaning, is conveyed; but soon, as we sit looking at the words, they shuffle, they change, and we begin saying, “Windows, yes windows—casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.” And before we know what we are doing, we have leant out of the window; we are looking for Ruth in tears amid the alien corn.

But Woolf’s stream-like delivery, and her fondness for “and,” explains only a little of the passage’s appeal. Some of its other faculties include the Keats-provided iambs of “in faery lands forlorn,” the rhyme of “forlorn” with “alien corn,” and the enticing contrast between the speaker’s lyric virtuosity and her embarrassed, self-amused confession that she cannot obey a simple sign’s instructions. Writing half as well as Woolf means more than just absorbing her syntax. And Fish, an intelligent man, knows this, but the system he has built for his book cannot.

Nowhere in How to Write a Sentence does Fish offer an actually beautiful or arresting imitation sentence, and after almost every example of his own he tacks on a grimace, an apology. This failure worries the reader. I want Fish, my prose coach, to show me (if only once) that he can hit it out of the park. Perhaps Fish is merely being modest, and if we were able to look inside his private notebooks, we would find page after page covered with gems. But as he never shows us an instance of the method working for him, and in fact produces many grotesque, horrible perversions of his models, a reader may wonder if the system itself is flawed. If a pure focus on syntax produces an unbroken sequence of ear-jarring banalities, perhaps this indicates a problem with the very assumption that the core of a sentence is its logical form. Perhaps the way a sentence sounds, and the way it calls to other sentences, other ideas, is as important as the premises it appears to be advancing. While preparing this review, I wrote out a large number of copies of John Updike’s home run sentence, and the one imitation I like works because it hints at more than it states:

He was dining with the gods while he was eating our shepherd’s pie.

Like Updike’s, the sentence asks readers to bring outside knowledge to the words “gods” and “shepherd’s pie,” and this demand is only loosely connected to its syntax. The syntax links two states, but the linkage alone is not moving. As Fish seems to consider the possible resonances between the pieces of the sentence, the way its words echo in the ear and in the mind, to be mere “content,” formless and indescribable, this suggests a very real limit to his model of sentence-making.

If you are studying ways to improve your sentences, Fish’s book is well worth reading. In particular, it is a great place to start—concise, humble, and perfectly lucid. However, his actual method of syntax imitation is less of a complete solution than he promises. Does this disprove my original claim that even skilled writers can benefit from the formal study of sentence-making? I don’t think so, and I continue to collect methods. I include a short list of excellent sources below, only some of which focus on grammar and syntax. In the end, How to Write a Sentence proves the opposite of Fish’s thesis, showing that great sentences involve much more than logical complexity, and that any study of sentence-making must include more than just the study of syntax.


Further Links and Resources:

Interested in in improving your sentences? The following is a list of resources for exactly that:


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