Most people know a good sentence when they read one, but New York Times columnist Stanley Fish says most of us don't really know how to write them ourselves. His new book, How To Write A Sentence: And How To Read One, is part ode, part how-to guide to the art of the well-constructed sentence.
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.
Many writers think that individual words are more important than the sentences that contain them. Not so, says Fish, who titled one chapter in the book, "It's Not the Thought That Counts."
"If you just assemble a list of words," Fish says, "what you have is a list of words." A writer must think carefully about the relationship between the words, "so that the words no longer simply exist in a list, but are now part of a large and comprehensible statement."
That's the crux of it, Fish says: "To understand that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships. When your sentences fall apart, they go back in the direction of being mere lists."
If you're starting to think that every sentence you've ever written has merely been a "list of words," don't be discouraged. Once "you master the form," Fish says, "then you can produce content endlessly."
But how to do it? How To Write A Sentence contains a number of exercises that Fish, a law professor, frequently assigns to his students. In one such exercise, he turns to Lewis Carroll's famous nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky," to illustrate the importance of sentence structure. He asks students to substitute English words for the nonsense words, "which will then in combination make a certain kind of sense, even if the sense is silly," he explains.
The hard part of the exercise, says Fish, is asking the students to explain how they decided which word "would or would not go into the slot formerly occupied by the nonsense word."
The point of it all, says Fish, is that the structure of Carroll's stanza provides all the clues they need to design a sentence that makes sense. "They then begin to understand that form comes first, and content follows."