Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sentence Charisma

If you care about good writing, I encourage you to read the review in NPR of Stanley's Fish's book How to Write a Sentence. Fish is a New York Times writer who shares his passion about syntax and word choice, flow and meaning.

'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."

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."'

An excerpt from the book provides several examples of sentence creation mastery.

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning....

If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.

'The sentence is snapped off, almost like the flick of a whip; it has the form of proverbial wisdom (a form we shall look at later), and the air of finality and certainty it aspires to is clinched by the parallelism of clauses that also feature the patterned repetition of consonants and vowels: "didn't want" and "would not have," "sheared" and "sheep." We know that "sheep" is coming because of "sheared" and when it arrives it seems inevitable and, at least from one perspective, just."

As a 'retired' high school English teacher, if I were back I would read this review and excerpt with my students including Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky, and the exercise Fish recommends to enrich skills in writing enthralling sentences.