Writing Tips From Stanley Fish, With References To Frankenstein and Dan Ariely

I’m continuing my tour through writing books by reading Stanley Fish’s How To Write A Sentence.

I’ve been a writer and editor for 20 years – starting seriously in college, where I worked for the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, the diamondback. The need to meet a deadline (and earn a living) sometimes overtakes good writing habits. Stanley Fish’s book reminded me to pay attention,  in ways that were clear enough for anybody who writes — lawyers, marketers, journalists, executives — to learn from.

Most practical for professional communicators are Fish’s observations on the subordinating style of writing, which is deliberate, ordered and analytical. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter.

You can practice writing sentences that breathe unshakeable conviction. Keep them short, employ parallel structures, use the present tense and limit yourself to relatively small words. “If you’re waiting for fortune to smile, you may endure many a dark day.” “When someone rises to a point of principle, watch your back.” “A discipline in form is a discipline in thought.”

Consider, too, what he refers to as the “they say, I say” template for a sentence, after Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book of the same name.

Speakers and writers who can deploy this template know how to summarize conventional wisdom on a topic on the way to disagreeing with it. “They say that money talks, but I say money corrupts.”

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist whose blog I follow, uses variations on this template fairly often, as in the beginning of this blog post.

Plato once said that people are like dirt. They can nourish you or stunt your growth.  This seems sage and reasonable, but I think people are more like Swiss Army knives …

Of course, a good part of the book looks at beautiful sentences, too, such as the last line of Frankenstein.

“He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”

Fish writes:

The sentence communicates the desolation and finality of his journey. There are two stages to it. Because soon precedes born away, we have a sense of rapid movement before we know what kind of movement it is; and then when we find out it is already movement “away.” … “Soon” is carried over silently from the first part of the sentence and attaches itself to “lost” at once literal and the final allustion in the novel to Milton’s great epic. So lost is he that his loss is describd in two measures that alliterate, “darkness and distance,” words that themselves have double meanings.

Wow, right?

I hope I sparked a few people to pay closer attention to their sentences today. A day in which you write a good sentence qualifies as a good day. :-)

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