Review of “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One” by Stanley Fish

Ostensibly, this is a book about how to craft an effective sentence. But it is also a celebration of those who have done it really well. Much of the book consists of examples by writers who perfected the art of constructing sentences, and by so doing helped us to perceive reality more beautifully, or ironically, or succinctly, or evocatively, than we ever would have been able to do on our own.

Through numerous examples, Professor Fish demonstrates the elements of good writing: What characteristics of sentences make us want to know more of the story? How do we write such sentences? How can we combine words to reflect a certain perspective, advance a point of view, or convey a particular emotion?

To my mind, the best example in the book is provided by an extensive quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail (1963). In a famous passage, the late Dr. King explained why blacks had run out of patience waiting for civil rights. He anguished over the impossibility of explaining to a six-year-old child why the world, for blacks, was like it was, and he lamented seeing “the depressing clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky….” In this short and incredibly masterful phrase, Dr. King packed in years of history; textured it with analysis; and freighted it with emotion. One can appreciate how and why he moved so many. I can’t resist including the paragraph from which this phrase comes for your reading pleasure (the whole of the Letter is available online) :

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Evaluation: Fish’s essay provides a lovely, short explication and appreciation of good writing, both for those who want to be counted among adept wordsmiths, and for those simply interested in appreciating the prowess of others.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2011

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20 Responses to Review of “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One” by Stanley Fish

  1. I have a feeling I need to read this book.

  2. sagustocox says:

    how ironic that you’d have a book about writing reviewed today, at the same time that I do. I really have to get my hands on this book!

  3. Jeanne says:

    Huh. I wondered who his audience for this book could be, back when I wrote about it (http://necromancyneverpays.blogspot.com/2011/01/how-to-write-sentence.html). It does seem like something bloggers would like to discuss, but since it’s a book, there’s no place for discussion.

  4. My inner geek needs this book!

  5. Beth F says:

    I definitely should give this one a read. Never hurts to learn more.

  6. Rachel says:

    This sounds like a very interesting book. I’m pretty sure I need it. Thanks for reviewing it!

  7. Barbara says:

    Thanks for the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote. He was a master at writing, at depicting whole stories in a few words. It had been too long since I had read this paragraph.

  8. Sandy says:

    I should read it, but I probably won’t. I prefer to just butcher the English language.

  9. That was a powerful MLK Jr. quote – thanks for sharing it! As for the writing aspect, I know I could use help there. I think as book reviewers it is especially difficult to attempt write using powerful word imagery without it all going wrong and ending up as cheesy cliche (at least in my experiences). Those who can write that well have my admiration – and you are certainly one of those who know how to turn a phrase!

  10. Stefanie says:

    I thought this was a good book too. Not great, but definitely worth the read especially if you want to think about sentences. MLK was a brilliant writer, wasn’t he?

  11. Kathleen says:

    I’m so glad you reviewed this! It’s been on my radar for a while, but I never thought very seriously about reading it. Now I’m reconsidering. I recently read the Francine Prose book, Reading Like a Writer, which I liked very much; this book sounds similar in its approach: teaching a specific writing skill (or skills) by providing examples from a wide variety of writers who have perfected their art. I really like this method of learning, as well as the idea of breaking writing down into its fundamental components. I think I will have to check this book out!

  12. Race on a social level is such an unfortunate fallacy! Dr. MLK Jrs words are so amazing and inspiring. Thanks for sharing. I am going to Memphis next month and will absolutely be visiting the site of his assassination and the museum. The struggle continues even today (as is apparent during this election).

  13. trish422 says:

    I definitely want to read this one.

  14. I could use this book for sure, my writing skills are terrible!

  15. softdrink says:

    I have this sitting on a shelf somewhere. 3.5 isn’t really inspiring me to go find, though.

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    Looks like I need this one. I never have figured out how to write an excellent sentence. I’m completely in the know on how to write functional ones 🙂
    Thanks for including part of the letter. It’s been too long since I read it and I needed a little inspiration today.

  17. bookingmama says:

    I have no doubt that I could learn a thing or two from this book.

  18. Jenners says:

    Did reading this book make it difficult to put together a review? I imagine I would be all self-critical and feeling awkward.

  19. Trish says:

    It doesn’t show now but I almost degreed in Technical Writing and so am fairly familiar with Fish and remember studying King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail with many colors of pen. I blame twitter for my subpar writing skills of late.

    LOL at Jenners’ comment. I’m even feeling self-conscious about my comment. 😉

  20. Does anyone else find themselves judging their own sentences after reading this post??? Dangit! I agree with Jenners, wanting to be better is good but being self critical can be extremely awkward!

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