Writing Is Thinking Book Review: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One serves as a guidebook for sentence writing as well as a model of analytical thinking for sentence reading. Full of appreciation for the English language and the craft of master authors who employ its nuances effectively, this short volume presents examples, analysis, and instruction in sentence writing using mentor sentences collected from English writers in the past half-millennium, including George Eliot, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, and Anthony Powell.

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Fish begins with the thesis that emerging writers who are learn the craft of sentence creation should begin with syntactic forms without regard to content, similar to the way that beginning pianists practice scales, arpeggios, and finger exercises. For the beginning sentence craftsperson, content can be a distraction; students first need to understand the tools of the trade.

Fish goes on to describe the three types of sentences, provide models from regarded writers, and give step by step instructions on how to write them. The two more formal structures are the subordinating sentence, which lends itself to ranking, ordering, and sequencing, and the additive sentence, which gives an impression of flow and flexibility. A third category is the less-formal, satiric sentence, which writers employ as a means of slyly critiquing individuals, groups, and social structures.

I really enjoyed the exercises suggested by Fish, and I found myself in a moment of flow and creative space as I worked within Fish’s expert guidelines to develop my sentence craft. The photo below shows my work with following Fish’s directives based on a model sentence by Ford Madox Ford to craft a non-contextualized sentence in the additive style, which resulted in the following sentence:

The bright dresses, patterned with tropical flowers, flowing and gliding from place to place on the parquet tiles, the conversation from each table vibrant and lithe, the children watching from the courtyard windows angling to hear the voices of their mothers, so ordinating in the daytime, punctuating the night with words, not about their children, but about their other non-mothering lives.

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In later chapters, Fish gives examples and analysis of effective first and last sentences, such as the succinct yet haunting ending of Orwell’s 1984: He loved Big Brother. He concludes by offering a simple equation that argues for the value of crafting sentences as a means to support reading comprehension and a love of language:

sentence craft = sentence comprehension = sentence appreciation

As I worked through this book, with my pen and notebook close at hand, I felt a sense of tremendous exploratory and creative freedom to write with content pushed aside. I felt like a true and authentic writer, allowed to polish my technique and encouraged by a masterful and analytical reader. This book would be a wonderful choice to explore during teacher professional development as it models how teachers, as readers and writers, must be able to talk about language with their students – with careful attention to its craft and structure, with passion and exuberance, with a wide knowledge of writers and writing.

As a middle school writing teacher, I can envision the writing classroom as a type of makerspace for sentence construction. Empowered with the tools of and process for sentence construction, the students become crafters of language. Having experienced deep analysis and discussion of effective sentences, middle schoolers will have the capacity and space to invent their own syntactic constructions.

Sentences are an essential link between vocabulary and discourse in reading and writing, and How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One amplifies the importance of understanding sentence craft and structure in order to fully understand the aesthetics and craft of the English language.

Harper Collins Web Sampler: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

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