This week, I went to the Peninsula Center Library and checked out Stanley Fish's book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. If I were really on top of things, I would have made the title a link so I could earn $.18 through Amazon's affiliate program if you clicked on it and bought it. But I don't need your $.18, and I don't know that I would recommend this book, anyway. It's a very nice book, just not for me.

Let me explain. When my sisters and I were younger and we had runny noses, my dad would dig through his pockets, remove a partially shredded tissue, and announce, "I have one slightly used Kleenex." You might be thinking the same thing we thought: "Gross." Still, we never refused the slightly used tissue.

In theory, there should be no such thing as a slightly used tissue. You should use a tissue once and throw it away. In practice, the slightly used tissue is a precious resource. Without it, you will notice other parents observing that your kid has a runny nose or that unwiped, unidentified food particles occupy the corner of his mouth. And then you will know. You will know that they are secretly wondering why your children look like street urchins from Les Miserables, and you will know that you are an inferior parent. You will know that you should have equipped yourself with a slightly used tissue.

Practical Tips > Theory

Theory is great, but practical solutions are better. This blog is all about practical tips for writing the essay. Stanley Fish's book, to me, is more about a theoretical approach, though in fairness, he does give some practical writing exercises, but they made me yawn. No matter. I am at the slightly used tissue phase of life. No time for theory now.

3 Ideas for Sentence Variety

I'm going to share three insights about the sentence that I took away from my initially close reading but by page 40 a quick skim because it was midnight and I was tired. File this under how to achieve sentence variety, a concept which, until just this week, meant to me including a mix of short sentences, long sentences, sentences with commas, and sentences with no commas. I'm very sophisticated, you see.

Insight #1: Sentence = doer + doing + done to

Writing is not alchemy. Each sentence has these three parts. When you write, you're just stringing together doer + doing + done, over and over.

Insight #2: Some Sentences Compare

Imagine you are writing a sentence about two things, A and B. You might say A causes B, A precedes B, or A is more important than B. If you do say any of these things, you are comparing A and B and making a judgment about which one is greater.

Insight #3: Some Sentences Juxtapose

Now imagine writing another sentence about those same two things, A and B. You might say A exists and B exists. If you say this, you are not comparing A and B. Rather, you are juxtaposing them, as if creating a collage.

Wait, You Promised This Would Be Practical!

Yes. Here's why I find these 3 insights practical. They take some of the mystery out of writing so you can get on with it. A sentence is doer + doing + done to. A sentence might compare. A sentence might juxtapose. You can use this knowledge to better scheme how you will direct your reader.

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.