Relax & Read: How to Write a Sentence

19 Mar

As told in my Back to School post, my NonFiction Writing I class assigned Stanley Fish’s How-To book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. We just wrapped up this short (only 160 pages) book, and, although my class had some complaints about simplicity, I really enjoyed it.

From the beginning, Fish describes the sentence as a medium (like paint to the artist) and how writers need to love the sentence before they can master the sentence. When he states, “I belong to the tribe of sentences watchers” I fell in love. I thought his honesty was relatable, and his task was courageous. As many writers like to believe they understand everything there is to writing, especially after practicing for years, no one does, and I think Fish acknowledges this very respectively. He doesn’t act as if he knows everything; instead, he opens up to forms upon forms upon styles that can be reviewed and studied, torn apart and understood.

This was the copy I bought, but it's often red and hardcover now.

This was the copy I bought, but it’s often red and hardcover now.

I really liked this, BECAUSE of his simplicity. I think, at least for me, I often get caught up in the complexity of language (meaning I’ve surpassed the basics, but I sometimes lose myself on complicating things too much.) Like an abstract artist, I may lose concentration on the overall piece, and Fish really grips reality when he discusses the relationships from word to word, sentence to sentence.

“This is what language does: organize the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated.”

I really encourage others (and myself) to often return to the basics, because that is our foundation, and we need a strong foundation if we’re going to keep building up. You cannot neglect the support when it begins to topple. In other words, you cannot forget your basic structures, even if you’re working within complex ones.

On top of that, if you’re looking for some quick writing tips, Fish discusses first and last sentences towards the back of the book, and I think his insights are very useful.

So..if you’re in the bookstore, and you’re looking for a quick read to help improve writing, take a step backwards and relearn where you came from in the first place.

It will surely strike up that passion of our original love for our medium: the sentence,


March 21: Publishing News: Synopsis & Cover Date Reveal

24 Responses to “Relax & Read: How to Write a Sentence”

  1. kkline922 March 19, 2013 at 12:50 am #

    ”I belong to the tribe of sentences watchers”. Wow, that is a beautiful thought. Thanks for sharing. I will have to check this book out, as I fancy simplicity, and I like the sound of how Fish approaches writing. What I liked about Noah Lukeman, is that his ideas were not rules, but forms of approaching art.

  2. Tim Diggles March 19, 2013 at 5:39 am #

    Shannon I’ve quoted you again in my blog!

  3. Tuan Ho March 19, 2013 at 6:08 am #

    I absolutely agree. I much prefer the simplicity of things over the complex nature that our world is increasingly headed towards.

    I really like this sentence:

    “Fish describes the sentence as a medium (like paint to the artist)”

  4. Alexander Miller March 19, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Reblogged this on The CMILLERPROJECT.

  5. Positive Thought - Positive Word - For Life March 19, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    Thanks for sharing. Is going to be a big help. I will get this book. BTW I am not a professional writer. Is my aspiration to become an author. So definitely it will be a great help. Thanks again and keep the good work.

  6. jacqueline786 March 19, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Hey Shannon, thanks for your follow. I am rather excited you stumbled upon my blog. I guess this is how one finds like-minded people. I also put your book “November Snow” on my reading list.

  7. Gretchen O'Donnell March 20, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Good book suggestion, thanks – I hate grammar, but I enjoy books like this. 🙂

    • Shannon Thompson March 20, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

      It’s not really about grammar, so you don’t have to worry about that. It’s more about relationships between words within the structure of a sentence. So you can avoid the grammar part you don’t like :]

  8. Hunter Shea March 20, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    I picked this up at B&N last year. I read it in little bites. A little dry, but there is gold if you sift hard enough.

  9. bvedsted March 20, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

    I have nominated you for the Sunshine Award! Great job, keep on blogging!

    • Shannon Thompson March 21, 2013 at 12:18 am #

      Thank you very much

      • bvedsted March 21, 2013 at 8:40 am #

        You are very welcome! Nice blog, great writer! Keep up the awesome work!

  10. Jilanne Hoffmann March 20, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

    I never stop reading with an eye toward improving my own writing. Fish’s book is a good one. Have you also read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer? If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. I wrote a brief review of it at:

    If you liked Fish, I really think you’ll like Prose. Check it out!

    • Shannon Thompson March 21, 2013 at 12:19 am #

      I haven’t. I’ll be sure to check it out.
      Thank you.

  11. Rilla Z March 21, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Ooo, I couldn’t agree more! One of the best suggestions I’ve received about researching/reviewing any topic is to begin in the children’s (junior) nonfiction section at the library. These books are addressed to an audience that doesn’t get offended by “let’s start at the very beginning.” I haven’t read Fish’s How-to book…yet. Definitely want to now 🙂

    • Shannon Thompson March 21, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

      Yes. I always get very sad when it comes down to someone being offended by the beginning. The beginning brought us to today; why should we be offended by it when it still has so much to teach us (or remind us)?
      Great piece of advice.

  12. L. Marie March 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    What a great post. You’re so right. Sentences are the building blocks of great paragraphs and eventually, great fiction or nonfiction. I’ll have to look for Fish’s book.

  13. rmcalzada March 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    Sounds like a great resource, Shannon! The last book on writing I read was Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Fish’s book sounds like it would sharpen my skills even more. His concept of the sentence as the basic medium to our art resonates with me. I’ll be sure to pick this book up on Amazon very soon.

    • Shannon Thompson March 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      I hope you enjoy the book. It’s a very quick read :] And looking forward to further conversations.

  14. gautambhatia1988 March 24, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    On the subject of Stanley Fish – I do feel that he is a fascinating – although extremely and often needlessly controversial – character. Personally, I’ve found that his literary criticism, whether you’re converted by it, or whether you disagree vehemently with every word, really forces you to think, and think hard. I recommend, in particular, his Milton criticism, and the article “Interpreting the Variorum”. It’s a brilliantly fun reading of Milton, though probably entirely wrong. 🙂

    • Shannon Thompson March 24, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

      I’ll be sure to check it out! Thanks for the recommendation.


  1. Learning the steps… | Tim Diggles - March 19, 2013

    […] of writing a sentence and how some of the other students complained that this was too simple ( I was pleased to see how she felt that this was like learning how a painter needs to use a brush […]

  2. Finals Week | Shannon A Thompson - May 14, 2013

    […] to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish: On March 19, 2013: Relax & Read: How to Write a Sentence, I wrote about this thin but very informative book. Easy for the beginning and a nice reminder for […]

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