Some simple lessons on writing, via Steven Pinker

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Editing a 200 page long thesis makes you curse your prior self more than anyone else. It also – hopefully – shows how things have improved. Nasty paragraphs written two years ago could certainly not have been written by your present self. And let’s not start on the computer code your two year old self bequeathed you.

But one thing I believe helped me was reading Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Sense of Style. I was browsing through it at the weekend to remind myself of some of Pinker’s advice. Here are a few things I have underlined.

On those who believe there has been a decline of linguistic standards:

As they age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline – the illustion of the good old days.

On a certain absurd rule of paragraphing:

Among the many dumb rules of paragraphing foisted on students in composition courses is the one that says that a paragraph may not consist of a single sentence.

On classic style:

Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.

Here is one for all academics:

Inexperienced writers often think they’re doing the reader a favor by guiding her through the rest of the text with a detailed preview. In reality, previews that read like a scrunched-up table of contents are there to help the writer, not the reader.

On I, me and you:

Often the pronouns I, me, and you are not just harmless but downright helpful. They stimulate a conversation, as classic style recommends, and they are gifts to the memory-challenged reader.

On the curse of knowledge:

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows-that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day.

Another piece of essential advice for academics:

Sometimes a writer should cleave an intimidating block of print with a paragraph break just to give the reader’s eyes a place to alight and rest. Academic writers often neglect to do this and trowel out massive slabs of visually monotonous text.

On incoherent prose as evidence of incoherent arguments:

If you try to repair an incoherent text and fine that no placement of therefores and moreovers and howevers will hold it together, that is a sign that the underlying argument may be incoherent, too.

Advice all scientists should heed when they start caveating:

If a reader is spending only 10 percent of his time on why it’s a good idea, and fully 90 percent of on why he might reasonably think it’s a bad idea-while the writer insists all along that it really is a good idea – then the reader’s mounting impressions will be at cross-purposes with the author’s intent.

And on that note, I am going to pour an espresso and sort out the paragraph sitting in front of me. It is all caveat.

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One thought on “Some simple lessons on writing, via Steven Pinker

    roddycampbell said:
    March 10, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    Very good. I especially like ‘If you try to repair an incoherent text and find that no placement of therefores and moreovers and howevers will hold it together, that is a sign that the underlying argument may be incoherent, too.’

    I use ‘if you can’t write it down clearly you don’t understand it yourself’ as a variant, and very often as an audit test on myself.

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