Writers are surrounded by style guides instructing them on how to write. Probably the most popular of these is The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, which is a mainstay of colleges and universities. In a previous post, I lamented how prescriptive guides such as this one are used to attack other writers and promote a black-and-white view of what constitutes “bad writing.”
But there are other guides that take a more flexible and positive approach to writing style. One of these is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a linguist and cognitive scientist who is known for writing thoughtful and provocative works on language and the mind. In this book, he applies his scientific background to advice on how to write in a way that will reach your audience.
What I Liked
Pinker’s approach to style is to recommend approaches that make it easier for the audience to mentally process your writing. This doesn’t mean that writing needs to be plain or simple, but that it needs to match people’s cognitive approach to language. Instead of stating universal style rules (like a prescriptive guide tends to do), Pinker explains why a particular approach is successful and in what situations. I found his brain-focused perspective fascinating.
Pinker covers a wide range of topics that are useful to the writer. He elaborates on the common advice to “show, don’t tell” by describing the components of a classic writing style. He discusses how sentences are constructed and identifies constructions that are easier for the mind to process (using sentence diagrams). He provides various tips on how to make your writing coherent across sentences. I especially liked his list of methods for relating two statements together, such as through contrast or generalization.
Pinker ends his book with a substantial chapter (over 100 pages) on “Telling Right from Wrong,” where he provides advice on aspects of grammar, word choice, and punctuation without resorting to a black-and-white list of rules. He incorporates research on actual language usage to support his choices. I can see this chapter in particular being a useful ongoing reference for writers.
What Could Be Better
The “Telling Right from Wrong” chapter is a long one, but it is broken down into small sub-topics that are logically presented. Some of the other chapters in this book are also long, but there are no clear break points. I found it a bit unfortunate that a writer who talks about how we process information in chunks did not include sub-headings in these chapters. I sometimes lost the thread when I had to put the book down in the middle of a chapter.
The first chapter talks about how to identify good prose by developing an ear for writing. Pinker analyzes some writing samples to provide us with his idea of good prose. I didn’t find this section as helpful because there were too many ideas being presented and they didn’t tie in as well with his overall theme.
Favourite Learning Moment
After describing how sentences are constructed and the easiest ways for readers to understand them, Pinker has this to say about the prescriptive style “rule” to omit needless words:
The advice to omit needless words should not be confused with the puritanical edict that all writers must pare every sentence down to the shortest, leanest, most abstemious version possible. Even writers who prize clarity don’t do this. That’s because the difficulty of a sentence depends not just on its word count but on its geometry.
This was an “a-ha” moment for me: A long sentence can be easier to read than a shorter one, depending on how it is constructed.
If you are interested in the whys of language rules and are not put off by academic-style writing, then this is a great book to add to your collection. It’s the type of book that gets you thinking and makes you appreciate the wonder of language. I’ll let Pinker have the last word:
[Grammar] should be thought of … as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head into another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful.
If you are interested in reading about other writing resources, you may want to take a look at my Resources page.
If you’ve read this book, what did you think? What is your ‘go-to’ manual for advice on writing style? Do you prefer the idea of universal rules, or do you like to have more flexibility?
© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015