Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Forgetting Thoughts to Learn "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One"

Part 2 of 3: In Part 1 I focused on Fish's ideas about relationships in sentences and activities for developing them. 

What if teachers were to instruct students to forget about content, the what of writing, and instead helped them learn the how of writing sentences? This is Stanley Fish's advice in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

Fish's advice would require a paradigm shift in writing instruction:

"The conventional wisdom is that content comes first...but if what you want to do is learn how to compose sentences, content must take a backseat to a mastery of the forms without which you can't say anything in the first place" (25). 

Many teachers, myself included, focus on essay structure: introduction, body, and conclusion. We find ourselves frustrated when students scratch their heads in confusion about how to write a thesis sentence and its placement at the end of the introduction. 

When I taught junior high in the mid-eighties, I spent considerable instructional time having students practice writing subordinating clauses they attached to kernel sentences that follow the subject + verb + object pattern. Later, I demonstrated how to move the subordinate clause from the beginning to the middle and then to the end of the base sentence. 

Fish's suggestion that "when it comes to formulating a proposition, form comes first; forms are generative not of specific meanings, but of the very possibility of meaning"...Form, form, form, and only form is the road to what the classical theorists called "invention," the art of coming up with something to say" (27). 

An essential truth, therefore, exists in students' denials of knowledge about what to do when it comes to putting thought to paper. It's the diction they get wrong, I think. Rather than not knowing what to say, they don't know how to say their thoughts. 

Activities such as text switching diction in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" will lead writers to understand "forms" as opposed to parts of speech. In writing Fish claims: "You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free" (33).    
One form Fish advocates practicing is "Had I". For example, Had I known Joplin, Missouri would be hit by an F5 tornado, I would not have burned all my personal days. Had I gone to law school, I'd now be a member of a profession that receives more respect than teaching. Had I not eaten the treat Alyssa brought me, I'd have no guilty feelings. 

"Had I" sentences relate past actions (whether taken or not) to present ones (taken or not). "This very abstract account is an account of form; as a form, it is empty, but precisely because it is serves as a mold into which innumerable contents can be poured" (31). 

Fish suggests practicing other forms: "Even though," "Were I to," "Notwithstanding that," "Depending on whether," and "In the event that." Each offers ample opportunity for filling in the slots with one's own ideas. 

Function Follows Form: "What Is a Good Sentence?"

When contemplating the question Fish poses, writers typically employ stylistic constructions and devices, such as parallelism, balance, parataxis, etc. Similarly, Fish turns to Cicero, Aristotle, Milton, Swift, and others to build his argument, simply that all writers have a writing style:

"The shaping power of language cannot be avoided. We cannot choose to distance ourselves from it. We can only choose our style, not choose to abandon style, and it behooves us to know what the various styles in our repertoire are for and what they can do" (42). 

Here's the partial classification list for sentences Fish suggests:
  • short sentences and long sentences,
  • formal sentences and colloquial sentences,
  • sentences that satisfy expectations and sentences that don't,
  • sentences that go in a straight line and sentences that surprise,
  • right-branching sentences and left-branching sentences,
  • sentences that reassure and sentences that disturb,
  • quiet sentences and sentences that explode,
  • sentences that invite you in and sentences that exclude you,
  • sentences that caress you and sentences that assault you,
  • sentences that hide their art and sentences that ask readers to stand up and applaud.
Simply, the key to writing good sentences is to consider the effect you desire, identify what you want the sentence to do (say), and decide how best to accomplish these two objectives. 

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