I rather feel as if I’m waking up from a long nap. I’ve been so distracted, and away from home, for months that I wasn’t paying attention to much outside my own life. For example, I had had no idea that Blake Edwards had died while we were in the West Indies preparing to return home via NYC, which I learned only from the Oscars’ annual memorial montage.
I also had no idea until yesterday that Stanley Fish has a new book, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One (Harper, January 25, 2011). I don’t think it’s specifically meant for anyone but adults looking to improve their composition skills, but it seems ideal for high school students, especially those schooling at home. I’ve long been a fan of Professor Fish’s aptly-named and well-written “Opinionator” blog for The New York Times, which I heartily recommend to you and which is the easiest way for you to decide whether Prof. Fish can write a sentence and whether he’s the one to teach you, or your child, to write one. For extra added benefit, he does a good job of teaching one to think, too.
From NPR’s recent book review, shades of the progymnasmata (imitative writing), and which contains a healthy excerpt at the end,
Fish is something of a sentence connoisseur, and he says writing a fine sentence is a delicate process — but it’s a process that can be learned. He laments that many educators approach teaching the craft the wrong way — by relying on rules rather than examples.
Analyzing great sentences “will tell you more about … what you can possibly hope to imitate than a set of sterile rules that seem often impossibly abstract,” Fish tells NPR’s Neal Conan.
A good sentence may be easy to pick out, but learning to understand what makes it great, says Fish, will help a student become a stronger writer and a “better reader of sentences.”
Just as a student of art must learn how to describe the merits of a painting, aspiring writers must be able to articulate what constitutes a well-crafted sentence.
“If you can begin to understand an accomplishment in detail, and be able to talk about what makes it work, you will begin to know why your sentences work or don’t work,” Fish explains.
I much prefer my “how to write” books by those who can write. It’s one of the reasons I’ve long treasured my father’s old copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, because William Strunk and especially E.B. White could write stylish circles around anyone else. Having read Susan Wise Bauer’s “Story of the World” history series, I appreciate the job she did making history come alive for younger children, but much of the time the language is clunky and falls flat. It’s one of the reasons I gave Writing with Ease a pass. I’ll be picking up a copy of Prof. Fish’s new book is because his sentences sparkle and crackle with life and meaning. The contrariness, a bonus, keeps you alert. I’ll leave you with an example from an old blog post, “I Am, Therefore I Pollute”,
Some years ago, I beat back an attempt to eliminate paper towels altogether and replace them with re-washable rags. But there are too many battles to be fought and I find that I am losing most of them. I did retain the right to have a small supply of paper napkins in an out-of-the-way cupboard. (I hate cloth napkins; you always have to worry about soiling them; paper napkins you just throw away, which is of course the problem.) But my house is now full of environmentally approved lightbulbs. They are dim, ugly and expensive, but I am told that they will last beyond my lifetime. (That’s supposed to be reassuring?) A neighbor told me today that he is planning to stockpile incandescent bulbs in the face of a prediction that they will be phased out by 2012.