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‘How To Write a Sentence’ – In a Sentence

September 27, 2012

Surprisingly (maybe to some) there are a variety of books entirely given over to the task of teaching you how to write. And this variety doesn’t even include the basic grammars – those tomes that paralyze you from ever actually writing from fear of stumbling into a nest of dangling participles or forgetting what knot you use to repair a comma splice. Those I do not enjoy (and I’m sure someone will tell me it shows!). Some of my recent favorites are autobiographical sketches like Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life or Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I enjoy general helps like Joseph Williams’ Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, Roy Clark’s Writing Tools or Thomas and Turners’ Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. After all, there is no sense rushing off to your idyllic cabin in the Catskills to polish off your magnum opus before you stock your toolbox. Discipline specific discussions like Carl Trueman’s Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History or Pyne’s Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History have fired my excitement, equipped my ignorance, and helped me vicariously avoid standard pitfalls. And of course there are delightful romps through (and all over) language like Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life which refuse to allow writing to get too cramped.

My favorite books on writing are sympathetic – enjoying and modeling the approaches they describe. Stanley Fish’s How to Read a Sentence: And How Read One certainly fits this description. It is an awesome thing to stop and ponder  how much power is compacted into a form of communication I use every day. There is surely a facet of what it means to be formed in the image of the God who creates with His word that we can glimpse here, if we only ever stopped to look at a sentence!

As I was working my way back through his celebration of what makes a sentence work, and some of history’s most powerful and pleasurable sentences, I thought it would be fun to try and capture the essence of each chapter itself in a sentence. I failed. Each chapter required at least two, a blend of re-presentation and evaluation. (Occasionally I would repeat a summary phrase from Fish himself). Once I had them written I thought maybe I could share them here in the dual hope of testing their clarity as a summary of the work and inciting some of you to pick it up for yourselves (and do me one better!). So here we go:

Chapter 1: Why Sentences? Sentences relate words into meaning. Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence construction equals sentence appreciation.

Chapter 2: Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White. The basic logical structure of a sentence runs – doer, doing, done to. The master question as you expand that three word sentence into an n-word sentence is “where does it fit?”

Chapter 3: It’s Not the Thought that Counts. Mastering meaningless form enables endless meaningful invention. Form is the engine of creativity.

Chapter 4: What is a Good Sentence? A good sentence accomplishes its intended effect, which is itself good. A good sentence shapes our perception in a moral direction.

Chapter 5: The Subordinating Style. Form not only carries but contributes to content.  The subordinating style arranges the world in tightly controlled relationships of causality, temporality, or significance.

Chapter 6: The Additive Style. Present-tense participles unfolding through weak appositions give the sense of action simultaneous, spontaneous, and never-ending. Behind every loose associative sentence is the tightly-ordered sentence that is not being written. A potentially deceptive style, it gives the appearance of mere or natural description, but conceals a prescriptive agenda.

Chapter 7: The Satiric Style: The Return of Content. Satire attacks human folly in ever broadening stages that move the reader from observer to participant to rebel against the vice. Effective satire requires consequence.

Chapter 8: First Sentences. First sentences are highly compressed promises narrating, meditating, celebrating or arguing key elements of its imagined world. They balance comprehension with incompleteness, foreshadowing the final sentence while inviting you into the second. (Theological first sentences must not be mistaken for closed systems. Fish understandably blunders whenever he dabbles in theology.)

Chapter 9: Last Sentences. Last sentences inherit the interest of all that has gone before and may invest the reader’s capital in satisfaction, squander it in dissolution, or suspend it in unremitted tension.

Chapter 10: Sentences that are About Themselves. Language carries an extraordinary power to communicate a reality its forms cannot present.


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