Miscellaneous · Writing Tips

Relax & Read: How to Write a Sentence

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 thoughts on “Relax & Read: How to Write a Sentence

  1. ”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. 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)”

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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 :]

  5. 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 🙂

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 🙂

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