Steven Pinker—The thinking person’s approach to writing in the 21st century (Beyond the Red Pencil, 2015)

Experimental psycholinguist and author Steven Pinker gave the opening keynote at Beyond the Red Pencil, the Northwest Independent Editors Guild’s fifth biennial conference. His talk covered the same territory as his book The Sense of Style (which I reviewed earlier), but I still very much enjoyed hearing him speak in person.

Why is so much writing so bad, he asked, and how can we make it better?

One common theory is that bad writing is a deliberate choice by bureaucrats who use gibberish to evade responsibility or by pseudo-intellectuals who want to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. But good people can write bad prose, said Pinker. Another theory suggests that digital media are ruining the language, because we can all recall that in the 1980s, Pinker quipped, “teenagers spoke in coherent paragraphs.”

A better theory is that whereas speaking comes naturally to us, writing doesn’t. “Writing is and always has been hard,” said Pinker. “Readers are unknown, invisible, inscrutable—and exist only in our imagination.”

What can we do to improve writing, then? Some would suggest reading books like The Elements of Style, but among some good advice—such as using definite, concrete language and omitting needless words—is advice that is obsolete or downright baffling. “The problem with traditional style advice,” said Pinker, is that it’s an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts based on the tastes and peeves of the authors.”

Instead, we should base our writing advice on the science and scholarship of modern grammatical theory, evidence-based dictionaries, cognitive science, and usage. Pinker made a case for classic style, which uses “prose as a window onto the world.” Reader and writer are equals, and the goal of the writer is to help the reader see objective realities. “The focus is on the thing being shown, not the activity of studying it,” said Pinker. The latter is a feature of self-conscious style that contributes to the verbosity and turgidity of academic and bureaucratic writing.

“Classic prose is about the world, not about the conceptual tools with which we understand the world,” said Pinker, who suggested avoiding metaconcepts and nominalizations. But he urges caution on the common advice to avoid the passive voice—especially since the advice itself often uses passive voice while condemning it. “The passive could not have survived in the English language for 1500 years if it did not serve a purpose,” said Pinker. English sentences rely on word order to convey both grammatical information and content. We expect material early in the sentence to name the topic (what the reader is looking at) and later in the sentence to show the focal point (what the reader should notice). “Prose that violates these principles feels choppy and incoherent.”

So “avoid the passive” is bad advice. But why is it so common in bad writing? “Good writers narrate a story, advanced by protagonists who make things happen,” said Pinker, whereas “bad writers work backwards from their own knowledge.

Too much knowledge can be a curse: “When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it is like for someone else not to know it.” It’s this curse of knowledge that leads to opaque writing. The traditional advice to solve this problem is to assume a reader is looking over your shoulder at what you write. “The problem with the traditional solution is that we’re not very good at guessing what’s in people’s heads just by trying hard,” said Pinker. A better approach is to show your draft to a representative reader, or “show a draft to yourself after some time has passed and it’s no longer familiar.” Rewrite several times with the single goal of making prose more accessible to the reader.

Another battleground in writing are rules of usage, but Pinker said that the “prescriptivist versus descriptivist” paradigm is a false dichotomy. Rules of usage aren’t logical truths and are not officially regulated by dictionaries, he said. They are tacit, evolving conventions. “Many supposed rules of usage violate the grammatical logic of English, are routinely flouted by the best writers, and have always been flouted by the best writers. Obeying bogus rules can make prose worse.”

How does the writer or editor distinguish real usage from those bogus rules? “Look them up!” said Pinker. “Modern dictionaries and usage manuals do not ratify pet peeves,” he said. “Their usage advice is based on evidence.”

In any case, Pinker said, “correct usage is the least important part of good writing,” compared with a conversational classical style, a coherent ordering of ideas, factual accuracy, and sound argumentation.

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