Pinker discusses his new book on Edge

If you’re an audio person, you can find a 37-minute video of Steve Pinker discussing his new book, and how to write well, on John Brockman’s Edge site. The talk is called “Writing in the 21st Century.

You can also click on the screenshot below to go to the video, but scroll down a bit when you get to the page:

Picture 1

If you’d rather read, the whole talk is transcribed at the same site, though the transcript has errors and doesn’t completely follow the talk. An excerpt or two:

The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

That may sound obvious. But it’s amazing how many of the bad habits of academese and legalese and so on come from flouting that model. Bad writers don’t point to something in the world but are self-conscious about not seeming naïve about the pitfalls of their own enterprise. Their goal is not to show something to the reader but to prove that they are not a bad lawyer or a bad scientist or a bad academic. And so bad writing is cluttered with apologies and hedges and “somewhats” and reviews of the past activity of people in the same line of work as the writer, as opposed to concentrating on something in the world that the writer is trying to get someone else to see with their own eyes.

Indeed! After sweating blood learning to write in an accessible, popular style, I now find myself nearly incapable of reading papers in my own field of evolutionary biology. They are almost always verbose, stiff, and leaden. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Graduate students are taught to write in a stilted style because their professors tell them that this is how one is supposed to “write like a scientist.”  Pity, that.

. . . So being a good writer depends not just on having mastered the logical rules of combination but on having absorbed tens or hundreds of thousands of constructions and idioms and irregularities from the printed page. The first step to being a good writer is to be a good reader: to read a lot, and to savor and reverse-engineer good prose wherever you find it. That is, to read a passage of writing and think to yourself, … “How did the writer achieve that effect? What was their trick?” And to read a good sentence with a consciousness of what makes it so much fun to glide through.

. . . Inevitably my own writing manual is going to be called “descriptivist,” because it questions a number of dumb rules that are routinely flouted by all the best writers and had no business being in stylebooks in the first place. These pseudo-rules violate the logic of English but get passed down as folklore from one style sheet to the next. But debunking stupid rules is not the same thing as denying the existence of rules, to say nothing of advice on writing. The Sense of Style is clearly prescriptive: it consists of 300 pages in which I boss the reader around.

There’s a lot more to watch or read. In the last ten minutes or so, he tackles the contentious issue of “scientism”: does science have anything to say about the humanities? If you’ve read Pinker, you’ll know that his answer is “yes.”

Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, will be out Sept. 30. I expect the literary qualities of comments on this site to improve thereafter.

 

 

30 Comments

  1. BillyJoe
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    There is also a video here:

    http://techtv.mit.edu/videos/20848-communicating-science-and-technology-in-the-21st-century

    He covers the bit about hedging in the Q and A section at about 1 hour and 7 minutes.

  2. Duncan
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    ‘I expect the literary qualities of comments on this site to improve thereafter.’

    Can we have a day’s grace period for reading it? I promise to write superbly from 01/10/14

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      For the USians out there, perhaps you should have explained that the rest of the world reads that as a date in October, not January.

      • Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        Agreed — and an excellent point on the subject of clarity and precision.

        In discursive writing, spell out the month. It’s only a few extra characters; it leaves no room for doubt; and it saves your readers time in not having to decipher the date. In tabular and similar presentations, use the ISO standard format: YYYY-MM-DD. Today is 2014-06-09. Not only is that unambiguous even to those not used to seeing dates that way, you can sort by it naturally without the sorting tool needing to know that it’s a date.

        That last feature is particularly useful for files on your computer….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Kevin
          Posted June 9, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          Any scientist who does not keep records using YYYYMMDD should be sat down and admonished. Computers automatically work in one’s favor if this dating scheme is adopted for everyone: from filing data to sorting cat and family photos.

        • Posted June 9, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

          But Ben, representing dates with visual symbols is an evolving practice, like it or not. It’s just silly to expect people to adopt a standard. If you can’t figure it out from the context, that’s just tough.

          • Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

            (Usually I prefer to be subtle, but upon rereading, I think this needs a tag.

            • Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

              FPS. A tag.

              • Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                Ok, now that everyone is sufficiently aware of my HTML amateurism, what I meant was a [/sarcasm] tag.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      I was going to say something but now I’m too self conscious about my style.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted June 9, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        I couldn’t have put it better.

  3. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    After sweating blood learning to write in an accessible, popular style, I know find myself almost incapable of reading papers in my own field of evolutionary biology. They are almost always verbose, stiff, and leaden.

    To a lesser extent, this applies to the manner in which scientists give talks too. My colleagues who teach lower division courses are generally better at giving good talks than those who don’t and better, on average, than scientists who never have to teach at all.

  4. Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I have been looking forward to buying this book. I teach a senior capstone class where the students do a research project which is then written up as a manuscript for submission to a scientific journal. I consider this task a somewhat sacred duty, and I do the best I can, but it is a bit like a one eyed man leading the blind.

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Well, if you don’t want to wait till Oct, and/or read 300pgs, you could do a lot worse than read George Gopen. He is, or at least was at Duke, and is just excellent. Maybe a decade ago I went to an afternoon’s workshop at Pitt (the dean first invited, then importuned us out of fear that nobody would show up), expecting to learn little, but he was great. And this paper summarizes it all.

  6. Stephen P
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I now find myself nearly incapable of reading papers in my own field of evolutionary biology.

    Government policy documents offer them stiff competition. I have had to wade through a few of them, and I find myself wanting to grab the author and ask him “why don’t you want people to read this?” But of course such documents are nearly always anonymous. I think I know why.

  7. Gordon Hill
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Mrs. Opal Eckert, my high school English an Journalism teacher’s mantra was, “Hard writing makes for easy reading.” While she noted it wasn’t the best English, she advanced it as a writing essential.

  8. Latverian Diplomat
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    ‘Graduate students are taught to write in a stilted style because their professors tell them that this is how one is supposed to “write like a scientist.” ‘

    I think the problem is even more systemic than that. It’s probably almost impossible for a graduate student to get published without adopting that style. Journal referees are also enforcers of this norm, and professors who don’t encourage the adoption of that style run the risk of doing their students a disservice.

    • John Harshman
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      That has not been my experience. I have worked hard to avoid the science-paper style, and have never had a referee complain about it, either as a grad student or afterwards.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        Fair enough. There are a lot of variables, including field of study, journal, reputation of co-authors etc.

        My experience (in a field other than biology) is that it does make a difference and/or professors believe that it does.

        In a publish or perish environment, people will conform they think it improves their chances.

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Whenever I help a peer write something I stop and ask, “what are you trying to say?” You’d be surprised how muddled people can become in trying to find the best words. Usually once they tell me what they’re trying to say, I say “write that”. It is usually that simple and they knew how to write it all along.

  10. Tim Harris
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Well, I’m afraid I wasn’t greatly impressed by Pinker’s ‘conversation’. I don’t know who all these literary critics might be – the ones he complains about and who are, according to him, beavering away writing silly prescriptive rules that mislead undergraduates and others. Are there really hordes of these people out there, outside the minds of those, like Pinker, who have an axe to grind? As for the arts, I am glad that he now thinks Virginia Woolf is a good writer, after the misunderstanding of something she wrote and the philistine blustering about literary ‘modernism’ – reminiscent of the attitudes of a not very bright retired businessman who hasn’t bothered to acquaint himself with any modernist writing but ‘knows what he likes’ – that graced the pages of ‘The Blank Slate’. I am also glad to to see that he seems to think a bit better about music than he did previously, and that he has acqusinted himself with the work of such scholars of the visual arts as E.H. Gombrich. I think also that if he cared to look into the matter, he would find quite a bit of work on poetry that is informed by linguistics and phonology.

    • Posted June 10, 2014 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      Looks like you have an axe to grind yourself with Pinker…

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 10, 2014 at 6:50 am | Permalink

        Yes, I do.

        • Posted June 10, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          Well, at least it was well written. Pinkah would probably like your prose!

          • Tim Harris
            Posted June 10, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

            Thank you!

  11. Posted June 10, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    “Inevitably my own writing manual is going to be called “descriptivist,” because it questions a number of dumb rules that are routinely flouted by all the best writers and had no business being in stylebooks in the first place.”

    I hope once Jerry reads the book, he’ll stop writing blog posts griping about people who don’t follow these dumb rules and inviting other people to do the same!

    • Posted June 10, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      You do know that this post is rude to the host, right? It says nothing except that you don’t like my posts about words.

      Sorry, but I don’t find posts about phrases that irritate me, or inviting other readers to say what irritates them, particularly invidious.

      You, however, I find out of line. You can apologize if you want.

      • Posted June 10, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        Well, this is embarrassing. It seems I’ve been a bit of both wrong and unclear. Let me see if I can wring some good out of this…

        First, my comment wasn’t meant to complain about what topics you choose to post about. It was meant to disagree with claims you’ve made (or that I thought you made) about language in previous posts.

        However, upon rereading some of your previous posts on language, I find that my understanding of your position was off. I thought that over the past several years of writing you had evinced a strong prescriptivist stance, but I think I must have confused some of your thoughts with those of commentors. I find some of your posts on language completely reasonable, and I am sorry to have made the mistake.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 10, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

          Jerry is right about language but wrong about toilet paper orientation. My hope is one day he will come around, along with the rest of the over orientation persuasion. It will be a grand day worthy of songs.


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