Why you won’t learn to write from Steven Pinker’s The sense of style

I think Pinker is just the best. I love his writing. I love his perspective. I love the way he takes on complex and often controversial topics and finds convincing clarity. I think I’ve read all his books. So when I saw he had a new one, The Sense of Style, I bought it. Maybe I could learn to write as effectively as he does if I read it carefully.

It sat on my night table for a few weeks, so I got it on Audible to listen to instead.  I got through a lot of it on a long drive to Fayetteville Arkansas. I loved it.

The first three chapters should be required reading for everyone. The first two make a  case for clear writing. They also show what’s clear and simple and what’s complex and confusing. They poke a bit of fun at the writing bible too, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. In many ways they are Pinker at his best. He is strong and opinionated but never pedantic. He points to authority as a reason to do things, except when he disagrees. These are themes throughout the book, especially in the more technical later chapters.

The third chapter is something I could just kiss, if I still relied on the paper copy. My reaction to it was similar to that of my then five year old when I told him I was reading a book called “Bad guys don’t have birthdays.” I could have written it myself, if only I could write as well as Pinker does. In this chapter Pinker begs us to think about what our readers know. Give us some background, don’t just launch into a story as if we lived like little parasites inside your brain. Don’t be like the three year old I met decades ago who told me we could play together when I got to his house, the white one in Illinois.

The chapter is called “The curse of knowledge,” and is subtitled “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know what you know.” How true. I wish there were a magic drug I could give all my students that would make them step back after writing and think about what they can add to frame the piece. This could be small things like putting their last name first in the file name, so the professor doesn’t get a pile of papers named “Assignment 1.” Or it could be as complicated as an introductory paragraph on what big question their experiment is addressing and what progress they have previously made. But really, taking a reader’s perspective should permeate writing. It should impact every sentence.

These first three chapters are worth the price of the book, but this is no reason to stop reading on page 76. The last chapter is a lot of fun too. I just listened to a read version of Pinker’s long table on incorrect interpretations of words, the place where he says he gets to be a purist. I agree with Pinker on nearly everything. I guess that means we are both Americans of a certain age who probably like to read similar kinds of books. Or maybe it means something more, that this is really the best way to write clearly if you want to reach an educated audience.

If I so love this book, why don’t I think it will teach you to write more clearly? It is because you can’t learn to write by learning a bunch of rules, or memorizing correct usage of words. Why, you can’t even seem to learn to correct certain consistent writing errors when I correct them directly on your paper. Next time you write for me, there they are again, cropping up like lamb’s quarters in a recently tilled garden. If my comments right on your paper make no difference, how could Pinker’s necessarily much more general book ever reach you? I don’t think it can, unless you are nearly there already and just use it to firm up things you already knew.

Does this mean there is no hope for either teaching writing or learning to write more clearly? No. It just means that the only way to learn to write is to write. And read. Play with your words. Try out different sentences that say the same thing. See what is simple and what is hard. Read your writing out loud. Read everything you can get your hands on. Write every day. Even just half an hour can help.

I suppose if it were Daniel Kahneman writing about writing, he would say that system 1 is largely in charge of writing, while comments on writing address system 2. System 1 is that innate system, the spontaneous response to things we call auto pilot, or knee jerk reactions. We do it without thinking. System 2 is much harder, covers reasoned responses and shuts down when we are tired or stressed. Writing is essentially speech and we just can’t think out every sentence without going crazy.

So the challenge of writing well is to get it into system 1. I think the only way to do that is to write a lot, to read a lot, to have correct language be your default. Reading Pinker should be part of that reading.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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One Response to Why you won’t learn to write from Steven Pinker’s The sense of style

  1. Joseph Yau says:

    The curse of knowledge was my favorite chapter too.

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