As you may know, Steve Pinker has a new book coming out, hard on the heels of his 800-page behemoth, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Had I written that, it would take me several years to recover, but the man is a machine.
His new book is a popular tract on how to write well: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (368 pages). It won’t be out until Sept 30, but you can preorder the hardcover or Kindle version now.
Here’s the Amazon blurb:
Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care?
In The Sense of Style, the bestselling linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker answers these questions and more. Rethinking the usage guide for the twenty-first century, Pinker doesn’t carp about the decline of language or recycle pet peeves from the rulebooks of a century ago. Instead, he applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose.
In this short, cheerful, and eminently practical book, Pinker shows how writing depends on imagination, empathy, coherence, grammatical knowhow, and an ability to savor and reverse engineer the good prose of others. He replaces dogma about usage with reason and evidence, allowing writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, rather than robotically, being mindful of what they are designed to accomplish.
Filled with examples of great and gruesome prose, Pinker shows us how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right.
Steve told me that it’s sort of an updated Strunk and White, but more discursive and less prescriptive. I, for one, am really looking forward to it (I’d get the Kindle version, but I’m simply unable to read electronic print).
The CBC has the first piece about it that I’ve seen: “Why politicians and academics don’t just say what they mean.” The first half is the author’s (Neil Macdonald) critique of obscurantist writing, and the second part gives some quotes from Steve about his book. From the piece (quotes are, of course, in quotation marks):
“Most academics … effortlessly dispense sludge,” writes Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist and writer.
. . . He argues that while many scholars do groundbreaking work, and have important ideas, “their writing stinks.”
“There’s just a lot of bad writing out there,” he told me, and that has its consequences: “We pay for universities, we ought to be able to understand what comes out of them.”
. . . Pinker’s book — he provided me with an advance peek when I called to talk to him about the subject — is neither a style guide, nor another rant about the need for fewer dangling participles and split infinitives.
In fact, he regards many English grammar rules as classist anachronisms originally designed in 18th-century Britain.
Instead, his is an argument for simplicity: “assumption of equality between writer and reader makes the reader feel like a genius,” he writes. “Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”
. . . In this book, he shines a pitiless light on our love of words like “framework,” “process,” and “model.” (I could easily add another 20 or 30).
These, he says, are meta-concepts, or “concepts about concepts.” He compares them to the layers of packaging material a customer has to hack through to get at the product.
And of course there’s our over-hedging — the use of qualifiers like “apparently,” “evidently,” “rather,” “comparatively” and “presumably.”
Editors call that journalistic caution. Pinker calls it “wads of fluff that imply [writers] are not willing to stand behind what they are saying.
What really hurts, though, is his diagnosis of such writing: “In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Ironically, he says, “it’s often the brightest and best-informed who suffer the most from it.”
The “hedging” stung a bit, for I’m occasionally guilty of that. It certainly comes from the hedging that’s absolutely necessary in writing scientific papers. When there are alternative explanations for your results, as there nearly always are, or you feel a need to emphasize that your results are provisional (“more work is needed” is the trite ending of many papers), words like “apparently” and “presumably” automatically come to mind. And I think that sometimes they are needed in popular works, too, for if you’re proposing a provisional conclusion, it may be appropriate to hedge it a bit. That doesn’t mean that you don’t stand behind it.
But perhaps I’m overly sensitive about this. I’m certain that my own writing skills will improve after I digest this book.