Sunday, February 12, 2012

Final Sentences

In this series on writing sentences, I've covered a lot of territory.  As I explained in the first post, I was prompted to write this series after reading Stanley Fish's book, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One.  To recap a bit, Fish postulates that it's the sentence that should be the focus of writing skill development. Sentences, not words, are the building blocks of writing.  A student must learn how to organize components of a sentence in a coherent manner to become a good writer. I would agree with that, although it's not all one needs.

Furthermore, Fish suggests that by studying good sentences from literature and understanding their form, a student can learn to construct similar sentences.  By providing examples of sentences (first sentences, last sentences, satirical sentences), by analyzing how they were constructed, and by suggesting exercises to replicate them, Fish gets his point across.  Another point he argues is that we should forget content initially, and focus on form. There is some merit to this idea, but eventually the writer must provide content. The writer must also put together sentences in a logical manner to produce a cogent narrative.  Just because we can mimic a sentence written by Hemingway or Woolf, doesn't mean we are ready (or ever will be ready) to turn out something as good as The Old Man and the Sea or A Room of One's Own.

Nevertheless, one must start somewhere to develop writing skills, and the sentence seems to be a key starting point.  As scientists, we must eventually write up our findings and explain our work to others.  We may have important knowledge about a topic, but without writing skills, we will not be able to explain it in a logical, convincing, or entertaining way.  Scientific writing is highly specialized and for some, difficult to master.  Most can learn the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, but style is something that is often overlooked or downplayed in favor of content and reliance on the fairly rigid format of scientific papers (as a substitute for style).  Yet style is what sets us apart from other authors and breaths life into otherwise dull and pedestrian treatises.  By focusing on the sentence we've learned some things about writing styles that perhaps we've overlooked previously, especially those of us who are technical writers and for whom content and logical narrative have been emphasized. I can say that after reading this book, examining examples of sentences from different literary sources, and practicing some of the exercises, I have a new appreciation for the sentence.

I've gone through similar exercises that focused more specifically on scientific writing and how to improve clarity.  Those were quite different from the ones proposed by Fish but were similarly based on an analysis of sentence construction (as well as linkages among sentences in a narrative) (see posts about Gopen and Swan's The Science of Scientific Writing).  The common thread is the identification of basic sentence constructions that characterize "good writing".  What I've learned from all such approaches is a keener awareness of what styles of writing work and why.  It's also clear that to really absorb these lessons, one must practice them....not only analyzing how other writers construct sentences but imitating different styles of writing.  Even if you never have need of certain styles of writing for your own work, being aware of them may enhance your understanding and appreciation of writing in general.  I've learned quite a lot in the process of researching and writing this series.  I've revisited some classic science and nature writing, which I viewed with a new eye toward style rather than content and gained a renewed appreciation for those essays.

Some reviews of Stanley Fish's book, How to Write a Sentence:
Sentences that take your breath away
Writing Styles
The Afterword
Fiction Writers Review

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