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Thursday, July 21, 2011


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Related source » Heavy sentences by Joseph Epstein - The New Criterion
On How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish.
[This related source is recommended in its entirety.]

“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.” […] I seem to have written more than three thousand words without a single kind one for How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. To remedy this, at least partially, let it be noted that, at 165 pages, index and acknowledgments and biographical note on the author included, it is a short book.”
— by Joseph Epstein, JUNE 2011 (

This review, by a professor of prose style, of a book on writing prose is interesting reading for several reasons, not the least being its valuable lessons on the subject matter. Professor Epstein's wisdom is provided by direct advice, as well as by examples of both good and less good stylistic stratagems. The commentary from readers of the review is also interesting.

As might be expected, any written critique of writing style is tantamount to a challenge for readers to find fault in the critic's own style. And many of the readers of the review rose to the challenge to varying degrees of persuasiveness. I, too, found several points to quibble with, though these may have had more to do with less-than stellar editing than with poor stylistic choices.

Together with some of the readers' comments, the article confirmed for me something that I had intuited about writing online. Given the sheer volume of writing available to anyone with access to the web, anyone who writes with the hope of finding appreciative readers must pay close attention to being succinct. Online readers have no tolerance for verbiage. If you insist on your readers having to use their scroll-bars, be advised that you are laboring on borrowed time.

I did get the sense that Epstein and the target of his scorn, Stanley Fish, have a history, not all of it pleasant. Either Fish gave offense to Epstein in the past, or he never repaid that loan. In any case, I thought that final cut, the backhanded compliment on the book's shortness, was a cut too deep, especially since Epstein's review itself would have benefited from some prudent pruning.

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