Steven Pinker on good – and bad – writing
Above: Steven Pinker; Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures
By CATHARINE MORRIS
“Why is so much writing so bad?”, Steven Pinker asked recently, at an Intelligence Squared event with Ian McEwan at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington. (The event was filmed, and the video can now be watched online here.) He’s not convinced, as some people are, that bad writing is a deliberate choice – as in the case of "academics in softer fields" who try to compensate for a lack of substance by "spouting highfalutin gobbledegook" – or that it came in with digital media. “Bad writing has always been with us . . . in every decade . . . going back to the invention of the printing press."
The abundance of bad writing, Pinker said, is testimony to the fact that writing is inherently difficult: it involves pretence and "a great deal of craftsmanship". For the past two decades Pinker has been in the business of expressing complex ideas for a wide readership, and many of those ideas have been about language itself, so he has a "dual interest" in the subject of good writing. In researching it, he asked a number of respected authors what style manuals they read when they were learning their craft, and "every last one" gave the answer "None". What they all had in common was “immersion in the world of edited prose . . . . Every great writer has spent an enormous amount of time consuming the prose of others”. And it’s “good reading, not simply reading”: dwelling on it; taking in idioms and paragraph structure; studying particularly striking or moving passages and trying to “reverse-engineer” them.
Good writers also adopt the right mindset. Writing is not like spoken conversation, Pinker pointed out – you're not "guided by the give and take of face-to-fact contact . . . . You’re casting your bread on to the waters”. Not only that, but “you may be dead when they read it”. There are different styles for different scenarios, of course, but Pinker advocates the “classic” style set out by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth in 1994. There is more about the classic style to come in the TLS review of Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style, but I can say here that Pinker recommends it over the reflexive style, according to which “the writer struggles to externalize some kind of subjective, idiosyncratic and mostly ineffable personal reaction to events”; the oracular style (“the writer sees something that no one else can see and announces his vision to the world") and the self-conscious style, where "the writer's chief goal is to escape accusations that he's naive about the epistemological assumptions underlying his own enterprise" (such writing, said Pinker, is often “larded with apologies”).
Use examples, Pinker said, and show rather than tell. And learn something about syntax – there is much to be gained by being able to identify a subordinate clause, a modifier, or an adverb; to put your finger on what is wrong with a sentence. Understanding grammar will also enable you to fight back, to defend your writing when an editor would like to change it. There is another aspect that is crucial: coherence. Pinker’s advice is to craft at the level of the paragraph, of successive sentences. Think about the narrative arc, avoid choppiness and help the reader to keep track of all the players.
Pinker went on to talk about usage debates. Is it all right to use "aggravate" to mean “annoy”? What about fused participles (as in "I object to Sheila leaving" as opposed to "I object to Sheila's leaving"), or the singular "they"? (Pinker gave the example of President Obama's statement "No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like".) Pinker deems prescriptivist versus descriptivist to be “a false dichotomy"; the main thing, he said, is to be sensitive to the expectations of the audience you are writing for. In a side note he pointed out that editors of dictionaries are not arbiters; they pay attention to how people use the language: "The lunatics are running the asylum . . . . [And] this is not a new development in the writing of dictionaries”. But he also said that you should be careful when using “fancy schmancy” words such as “fulsome” and “meretricious”.
When McEwan asked Pinker about his scientific background, Pinker replied that he liked to approach usage as an empirical matter (what’s the evidence that you can’t split an infinitive? and so on); and style as an exercise in applied psychology. Writing should convey information and please the ear. “Put the heavy stuff at the end of the sentence", polysyllables after monosyllables. ("It's 'kit and caboodle', not 'caboodle and kit'.") Good prose, he said, is enlivened by moments of poetry: alliteration, assonance, allusion.
McEwan brought up the vexed question of the use of the word “hopefully” in phrases such as “Hopefully it won’t rain today”: “set us free”. It’s a curious rule, Pinker replied, because there are many other comparable adverbs (“frankly” and "sadly" among them) that are freely used to convey the attitude of the speaker. But "hopefully" used in that sense came late, in the 1930s, so it grated on the ear.
"As the composition of the literate readership changes it ceases to be a problem." He gave the example of the verb "to contact", which was frowned upon by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White in The Elements of Style. "This controversy is long forgotten . . . . ["Contact" as a verb] went viral . . . and now it is unexceptionable . . . and precisely because it's sometimes indispensable." "Change is inexorable", Pinker said; "resistance is futile".