In the first pages of Stanley Fish’s new book, How To Write A Sentence (with the clever subtitle, And How To Read One), Fish admits that “I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away…” Like Fish, I am a sucker for a beautiful turn of words, a devoted recorder of spot-on phrases, and a willing and easy victim of solar-plexus slamming one-liners. But unlike Fish, I never quite understood why a sentence was as good as it was. Now I do. In How To Write A Sentence, Fish explains the magic behind all those sentences I’ve loved through all my years of reading. Lo and behold, the magic is not magic, but form and structure, then discipline and practice, and when the muscles have been built, then talent takes over.
Contrary to the rules laid out by Strunk and White, Fish allows that good sentences come in all lengths, tenses, and styles — but in sync with Strunk and White, Fish stresses the importance of understanding basic sentence structure. Fish begins his book by explaining the form of a good sentence, offering examples and explaining how the form is mastered (practice! practice!); he then explores, again relying heavily (and delightfully!) on examples taken from all realms of literature, the place of content within basic sentence structure. Finally, Fish reveals — again using marvelous examples — how the full power of the sentence form is released when a seasoned writer twists the form into something new and special and illuminating: “to refuse the confines of the medium and deploy it as a springboard to truths it cannot express… ”
For both aspiring writer and eager reader, Fish’s insights into sentence construction and care are instructional, even inspirational. The road to the perfect sentence ain’t easy but oh the view when you arrive! And Fish provides plenty of great views, everything from an Elmore Leonard first line (“One day Karen DeCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca“) to a Mary Shelley last line (“He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.“). How to Write A Sentence is a fun book to read for the provided quotations alone but don’t skip the stuff in-between. That’s where the lessons are, lessons on writing and lessons on reading.