Fish has three reasons for his style. First, if you learn what goes into making a memorable sentence—coordination, subordination, allusion, compression, parallelism, alliteration—you will also be learning how to appreciate the sentence. Second, if as you admire the sentence, you become aware of why you are admiring it, you can begin to produce something like it. And third, as you practise analyzing and imitating sentences, you will at the same time be
Why is it important to be able to read sentences? (Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, calls this “close reading.”) Because it helps you to know what makes this sentence so effective: It was in the books while it was still in the sky. This was written by John Updike, about a home run hit in Fenway Park in 1960. Fish spends a full page showing us why it is so good, and another page demonstrating an exercise in matching its style.
How to Write a Sentence is a whole new take on a subject that has been worked to death. The death part comes from all those grammar and style books that, in the end, aren’t helpful. They aren’t helpful because, as Fish explains, they assume that the user “already knows how to write; already knows, that is, what a sentence is.” Take Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, a revered classic. If you’re not quite sure what a sentence is, or isn’t, and you couldn’t for the life of you explain how a subject and verb go together or what an independent clause is, Strunk and White’s instructions will make no sense.