June 2011

Heavy sentences

by Joseph Epstein

On How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish.

After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”

Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else. Most people ...

Joseph Epstein is the author of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 June 2011, on page 4

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