Because the 2014 writing guide Steven Pinker authored is truly essential for improving writing, all writers would certainly benefit from reading it. “Purists”, as Pinker calls the sticklers for grammatical rules, might identify four or five errors in the previous sentence. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Pinker, a psychologist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University, argues that the “texting generation” has not ruined English as some fear; rather poor writing has always abounded. Pinker’s aim is to help good writers become better. He draws on psychological and linguistic research to explain in an entertaining voice the underlying principles behind why his practical tips will improve writing.
Pinker reminds us that good writers are avid readers who have honed their writing craft over time. Good writing requires critical analysis of language usage and decision-making in the face of ambiguous and evolving rules. Pinker characterizes writing as an unnatural way to communicate because it deprives us of many of the tools we use in speech. Style is critical for building understanding and trust between writer and reader because it helps preserve the elements of oral communication that can get lost on the page.
Pinker says the most damning obstacle to good writing is the curse of knowledge. Cognitive science research suggests that people are minimally competent in knowing what another person knows or thinks. They are not good at imagining what it would be like for another person not to know something that they know already. The curse of knowledge leads to the overreliance on jargon, abbreviations, and onerous chunks of information. It leads to the underutilization of explanations, examples, concrete descriptions of visual images, and digestible packets of information. The best way to avoid these problems and to write with the needs of the reader in mind is to revise. Asking someone with less knowledge about the topic to edit a work is critical. Pinker says that authors often organize their ideas in an arbitrary order rather than in the order that will facilitate the reader’s understanding and retention. Creating an outline and being clear in one’s own mind about the purpose of the writing can help minimize this tendency. A writer should also repeatedly edit her written work.
Pinker argues that writing in a classic style can help people avoid the pitfalls that make writing stuffy. Good writers assume that they and their readers are equally intelligent, but unequally familiar with the topic at hand. Clarity and simplicity are the hallmark of good writing. Good writers are not anxious, apologetic, or trite. For example, they make claims in the first person and avoid the use of clichés.
Syntax is important because it converts a nest of jumbled ideas into a coherent string of words. Psychological research shows that people more easily comprehend meaning when a topic is introduced before the comments about the topic are made and when related ideas are next to one another; this is also syntactically desirable. Extra words, varied terms for the same concept, and the use of multiple negative words encumber readers with a greater cognitive load and more demands on working memory; brief sentences are preferable.
Pinker concludes with two lists. One is a catalog of grammatical rules and word-meanings that purists might embrace. He argues that the items on the list are not necessarily violations of grammatical conventions. For example, there is a place for “ain’t” in English; beginning a sentence with a conjunction is usually just fine; dangling modifiers with clear subjects are permissible; ending a sentence with a preposition often leads to better comprehension. Those who are sticklers for language will find this list interesting and challenging; those who are tired of having their grammar corrected may find this list vindicating; all English-language users can benefit from being exposed to the controversies on this list. He concludes with a list of common grammatical or word-meaning mistakes made by writers that are true errors to be avoided. Pinker uses humor and pithy comics, has a flexible attitude about writing rules, and explains the underlying cognitive motivation for these rules. This makes his writing style guide an approachable, useful, entertaining, and clear tool to helping any competent writer become great.
Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, New York: Penguin.