The Perfect Sentence

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I’m like Stanley Fish; I appreciate the fine art of the perfect sentence. I love its structure, pattern, poise and precision. Fish’s ‘How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One’ has seduced me. How could I not buy a book whose first quote is?


One Day the nouns were clustered in the street,

An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.

The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.

The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

 -Kenneth Koch, “Permanently”


I causally picked up the book in the GOMA bookshop in South Bank Brisbane. I was so excited that someone else loved the sentence as much as I did. I had to have this book. Instead of collecting fine wines or lino prints, Fish collects sentences. And so do I!



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Mostly I collect the first sentences in books that I’ve found life changing. They prime me for the whole story that’s to come. A sentence is more than just a list of words. Sentences have rhythm, melody and shimmering lights. The can change the way you see the world. While we think in shapes, we write in sentences, therefore, the sentence is the basic building block of prose. It creates connections that gives words meaning. A good sentence is not just a list of words. A sentence places words put into relationships that bring about effect, contiguity, likeness, subordination, position and style.

The Macquarie Dictionary states that a sentence is ‘a linguistic form (a word or a sequence of words arranged in a grammatical construction) which is not part of any larger construction, typically expressing an independent statement, inquiry, command, or the like…’ How cold is that? To me it is a living breathing sequence of elegance.



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Take for example the first lines to Catherine Bateson’s Painted Love Letters

Dad said that in Nurralloo we were surrounded by Philistines who wouldn’t know a good painting if it jumped up and bit them, but at the pub they hung one of his small watercolours; a sketch he called it, and Dad got free beers.

The words take you into a world of the country pub and you want to journey with the protagonist and her father – and of course there are free beers. 

Christine Bongers opening sentence in Henry Hoey Hobson perfectly captures the isolation of a solitary primary school boy in a class of girls. You can just feel the tension and know that she is going to be trouble:

She was waiting with a gaggle of mates, blocking the stairs leading back down from our classroom. 

Below is a list of some opening lines I love which provoke that often illusive quality of must find out more…


boys dont knit

Mum and Dad are at it again.

T.S. Easton: Boys Don’t Knit

Clean that mind of yours, it might not be what you think? Must find out more…

Why? Must find out more…


eleanor  Pakr

XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus.

Rainbow Rowell: Eleanor & Park

We all know the politics of the school bus but how does our narrator survive? Must find out more…

I may have found a solution to the wife problem.


Rosie Project

Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Project

Now what the heck is he doing with the wife? Must find out more…

But you must have your own list of favourites…

first chapters


First sentences are the hook that drags your reader into the net of must find out more. It’s not easy to write the perfect sentence. It takes practice and dedication. Just as a pianist practises scales and an artists sketches, a writer needs to practice sentences. The more you practise, the more you revise, the more perfect your sentence can become. Writing the perfect sentence is just the same. The more you practice the more perfect it gets and you master the fine art of the perfect sentence. And your reader is compelled to think they must find out more… 

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read gives you practical tips on just how to achieve the perfect sentence. 

Let us know what your favourite first sentence is or why not send us in your perfect sentence. We’d love to read them and we promise not to edit them! 


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How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One Stanley Fish

Harper Collins NY 2011

Other web sites you can visit:

Stanley Fish Opinionator Page:

New Statesmen article by Stanley Fish:

Annie Dillard The Writing Life:

Kenneth Koch:


  • Tuesday, 18 March 2014

    Love this post, Leonie (and would have even if HHH hadn't gotten a guernsey!) Better go recheck the first line of Intruder and make sure it's worthy. Cx

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