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:
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.