Steven Pinker: What science can teach us about how to write well

Pinker says the best writers are those who can free themselves from the curse of knowledge
Harriet Green talks to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker about avoiding corporatese.
Steven Pinker, the author and intellectual ranked by Time Magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, has a new book out, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. It is a style guide by someone who deals with language as a subject, but who also relies on good writing to share his ideas. It’s crammed with the usual dos and don’ts, but with an inevitable scientific finish. He calls it an “outreach programme” – a theory of writing designed to help anybody, even those in business, improve their prose. So what are we doing wrong?


The issue for every writer, says Pinker, is the curse of knowledge – it’s very hard to imagine being someone who doesn’t know something you know, and to write for them accordingly. Business jargon is just one example of when people “fail to realise that others aren’t part of the clubhouse,” he tells me. Technicalities get dressed up, but this isn’t because of a desire to exclude. Rather, it’s so the writer can assert and solidify his or her own position.
In his book, Pinker says those who manage to avoid this share “an insistence on fresh wording and concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary”. And more fundamentally, they “try to lift [themselves] out of [their] parochial mindset and find out how other people feel and think.” So what can you learn from Pinker to avoid the “academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese and other kinds of stuffy prose” that bedevil so much business writing. Here are four of his recommendations.
It seems simple enough, but “I” and “you” should almost always be used, says Pinker. Giving agency to something inanimate – “this paper will argue” – should be avoided. Unless you deliberately want to move the reader’s attention away from the subject, the active voice will always engage them more successfully.
In a similar way, “compulsive hedging” should be avoided. “Many writers cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply they are not willing to stand behind what they say.” Words like “seemingly” and “partially” shouldn’t be used – or should at least be saved for claims that really need them.
Pinker also warns against clouding your reader’s gaze with “verbal coffins” that don’t convey anything. Abstract ideas and concepts are fine, but concepts about concepts obscure, rather than clarify. “Could you recognise a ‘level’ or a ‘perspective’ if you met one on the street?”
When cliches become too familiar, you stop processing them in visual terms – overuse robs them of their original meaning. Worst, says Pinker, is when writers mix metaphors – “fall through the cracks”, rather than “between”. Why not come up with a fresh metaphor instead, he suggests – use them to help your reader see the world as you do.

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