There is a certain paradox about books that try to teach how to write well: Anyone with a gift for writing hardly needs the advice and anyone who dreads writing rarely profits from such advice. “Education is an admirable thing,” as Oscar Wilde observed, “but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
This does not mean we cannot improve the quality of our writing but this really requires just two stunningly simple rules: a) write, write, and write and b) read, read, and read. The rest is footnote.
Except when it isn’t.
Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century” isn’t an easy book to peg. It offers plenty of advice, all based on appeals to intellect and common sense, as expected from a renowned cognitive scientist and linguist. It slays the myths about bad writing in the age of the Internet and reveals the jaundiced views of the self-styled ‘style mavens’ whose fear of change in language usage makes them anything but maven. It pays homage to Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” without being bound by its limitations. As Pinker writes in the prologue: “Many style manuals treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation.”
But Pinker’s analysis of syntax that can “help a writer avoid ungrammatical, convoluted and misleading prose” can be a touch too complex. It is true, as Nabokov said, that “a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist” (a bill that fits Steven Pinker perfectly) but most writer only want to “write with clarity and with flair,” without having to deconstruct each sentence as a node in a database. His chapter on “The Web, The Tree, and The String,” with its intricate tree diagrams and their forward and backward-pointing arrows can cause a would-be writer to flee to the nearest forest in panic.
But that’s a minor objection compared to the riches this guide offers. In fact, the very first chapter, “Reverse-Engineering Good Prose as the Key to Developing a Writerly Ear,” is alone worth the price of admission. The craft of writing is a lifelong calling, as Pinker reminds us, and although “the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best works of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.”
Writers may quibble with the word “must” but Pinker’s reflections on what makes the work of masters so memorable is irresistible. He does not quote Shakespeare or Hemingway or other recognized heavyweights from the curricula of English departments but writers who write obituaries, dispense advice (Dear Abby), track migration and muses on the enigma of existence and death,. Their writings show that “a varied vocabulary and the use of unusual words are two of the features that distinguish sprightly prose from mush.” They know that readers understand and remember material far better when expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images. For them, the concrete almost always wins over the abstract, the visual and the conversational over the vague and the condescending. They know that pedantry is the bane of good writing, that good writing means revising. What else do these authors share? “They write as if they have something important to say.” Even more, “they write as if they have something important to show.”
In the chapter on “Telling Right from Wrong,” Pinker takes issue with the language police who focus only on correct usage of the language and ignore the more important qualities of clarity or grace or coherence. These pedants, sticklers, peeves, nitpickers and snoots – otherwise known as purists – do the English language a disservice All the tropes are here: adjectives and adverbs, who and whom, between you and I, can versus may, dangling modifiers and split infinitives, ‘none’ as singular or plural, less versus fewer, active versus passive, its versus it’s, and so on. As Pinker notes, “… for all the vitriol brought out by matters of correct usage, they are the smallest part of good writing. They pale in importance behind coherence, classic style, and overcoming the curse of knowledge …”
So how should a writer aiming for clarity and flair write? Pinker’s summing-up advice is as sound as it is attainable. “First, look things up. Second, be sure your arguments are sound. Third, don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world. Fourth, beware of false dichotomies. Finally, arguments should be based on reasons, not people.”
What exactly do these mean? Get this guide if you want to find out. You may skip the sections that go too deep into syntax structure (I did) but what you do read and act on, you will do so with pleasure. You will write with clarity and with flair. Just as with any other worthwhile craft, it will not happen overnight, but it will happen. That’s what makes Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” a book to heed.