How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One

I wish I had read this book when I was teaching first-year composition, when I was trying to coax students who were not inclined to do so, to write. Because this book teaches sentence writing in a whole new way, one that anyone could comprehend and apply to their work, like my former reluctant students who were taking the course because it was required.

And yet, the way the sentence is taught here is also laced with layers of possibility, giving room for the more advanced writer and reader to grow.

Its title caught my eye, diverting my attention away from the other writing guides. It compelled then undercut itself, though I couldn’t have articulated that then. I just knew that it was good.

But I needed to read it — the entire book, not just its title — in order to articulate and more fully understand the impact of those ten words on me.

In How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Stanley Fish has a two-fold mission: first, to teach how to craft a sentence and second, how to appreciate one. But the two are not exclusive roles, strictly relegated to one function at a time of reader or writer. Rather, the two work in tandem.

Instead of giving dictionary (or book of literary terms) definitions of what a sentence is, with its parts of speech and all that goes along with it, Stanley Fish instead breaks a sentence down to a condensed understanding: a sentence is 1) “an organization of items in the world” and 2) “a structure of logical relationships.”

Thinking about sentences as a structure of logical relationships is a novel idea to me. If I could have taught my students that one principle, it would have allowed them to see their writing in a new way, and probably even given them the tools to correct more errors on their own, even if they didn’t know the technical terms for them.

Because if a sentence is about relationships — and not parts of speech — if you can view each word in a sentence as being in relationship (in content and grammar) with the words surrounding it, then a focus can be placed on those connections, not on individual rules. A novice writer may not know the rules she is breaking. But she can recognize that some of her words aren’t in relationship or have the right connection with the others.

At least, this is my thinking now. I’m no longer teaching first-year composition. But I’m still filing this information away in the event that I ever do again.

Relationship is the base of sentences. Stanley Fish also writes about the need to imitate good sentences, not in content, but form. Content comes later; for now, it is the practice of writing good sentences, borrowing from the techniques of the masters, that is important.

He tries imitating some of these himself. Anyone can read a good sentence; many can identify one. What’s more tricky is to take the time to try writing one in the same style yourself. But the most difficult of all? Offer an analysis, a detailed explanation of why a particular sentence does what it does, and does it well.

I wrote earlier that I couldn’t have articulated why the title was good until I’d read the book. The book, after all, is all about how to craft sentences and how to appreciate them. Might as well try my hand at what Fish was encouraging in analyzing it now.

The first half of its title, How to Write a Sentence, at once declares the need to learn (or re-learn) how to compose a sentence, one of the most basic linguistic constructions we use every day, while at the same time, announces (or at least implies) that the answer lies within its covers.

The second half of its title, And How to Read One, is surprising, and causes us re re-evaluate our understanding about the first part of the sentence — because after all, we all know how to write a sentence and the title works on this assumption; what we really want to learn is how to write one better — but it also undercuts itself and our assumption that we know what is meant by reading a sentence: if we need to learn how to read it in the first place, it implies another, more sophisticated type of reading than mere comprehension. And if this more sophisticated type of reading is needed to be learned, then it follows that it’s a more sophisticated type of writing we need to learn as well.

From these deceptively simple ten words, then, we understand that we’re not just dealing with any old how-to writing guide, but one with a promise of learning to write and read beyond mere construction and comprehension; that is with finesse, style.

That is my exegesis of the title, anyhow.

I’m convinced that what Fish wrote is right: that the practice of imitating good sentences gives us the tools to later write our own appropriate sentences in the context and for the effect we desire.

I also thought, as I read, and encountered some very excellent sentences from Fish’s selection (some of them are deceptively simple, others imposingly long and complex), about the practice of being aware of good sentences in every day life. “Some people are bird watchers,” he writes, “others are celebrity waters; still others are flora and fauna waters. I belong to the tribe of sentence waters. Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences. 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!'”

How would my reading change if I were to become a more avid sentence watcher, I wonder? If I were to be continually on the lookout for that which was impressive (Fish doesn’t limit his appreciation of sentences to literature, but also includes several references to film dialogue).

And how would my writing change if, when I found a really good sentence, I held it up to the light, analyzed it and turned it every which way, explicated about it, and then tried my own hand at writing one?

I wonder.

What do you think?

Questions: 1) How could thinking about a sentence as a “structure of logical relationships” change how you write?

2) How could becoming a sentence watcher change how you read?

3) What are your favorite sentences?