Rude Remarks

Good Advice, Bad Examples

January 08, 2015

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Good Advice, Bad Examples

I can’t resist a writing style guide, especially one that promises to be lively. Steven Pinker made his name as a linguistic and cognitive scientist; his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a level-headed classic in evolutionary psychology, and his instincts for explaining neuroscience to the layman are usually dead-on. So you would expect the writing guide he released this fall to be superlative. But as slim as it is, it turned out to be hard to get through.

The would-be advice seeker will notice immediately that the title is practically a paragraph: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Who is this guy to give advice on brevity? He also authored The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which breaks an obvious natural rule for composing titles: Don’t crib them from politicians. Not even Abraham Lincoln.

On the other hand, the actual science in the guide is as useful as it is stimulating, even if Pinker writes some unclear sentences while preaching clarity. You don’t need to be Oscar Wilde to describe how the Wildes of the world do what they do, or even to help them understand and perfect the mental machinery underlying their “instinctive” good sense. (Pinker explains why avid readers make great writers: the more tricks we observe, the more we have lying in the neural arsenal to pick from.)

“Just because words are easy to understand doesn’t mean they aren’t masturbatory.”

The guide opens with a pronouncement against overly prescriptive grammar nazis—that is, those who prefer to prescribe time-honored rules rather than bending with the common usage of the age. Coming from a linguist, this approach was no surprise. “[S]keptics and freethinkers who probe the history of these rules have found that they belong to an oral tradition of folklore and myth,” Pinker writes, implying that prescriptive grammar is no more than descriptive grammar that’s been frozen in time. He even goes after the legendary Strunk and White:

Strunk and White, for all their intuitive feel for style, had a tenuous grasp of grammar. ... Lacking the tools to analyze language, they often struggled when turning their intuitions into advice, vainly appealing to the writer’s “ear” ... Today’s writers ... rightly expect reasons for any advice that is foisted upon them.

My gut retort is that reason and evidence seem a poor trade-off for the camaraderie and tradition that once flavored apprenticeships in newsrooms. Is adhering to a few dusty old rules really irrational if the stern ritual (I guess now they’d call it an “abusive hazing”) of passing them on builds excitement for what can be thankless work?

Then again, it’s not like the Internet age gives you much of a choice. Most young writers now work and learn in isolation. If you splash out on such frills for your publication as a physical newsroom, you’ll have to spend more time teaching clickbait tactics than writing style anyway. So, reason and evidence it is.

In the next chapter, Pinker sets out to inspire by dissecting excellent examples of prose and showing us where they went right. Sounds like fun. But the first clip is one of smug atheist Richard Dawkins’ greatest hits, in which he reassures his faithful that being doomed to die in a cold and uncaring universe is fantastic. The alternative is not to have been born at all, you see, and wouldn’t that have been bad luck?

I get it: if you admit that life on a godless, pointless speck in the cosmos is psychologically devastating, you’re not going to sell lots of books and get famous. But holding up sophistry, however skillful, as a paragon of prose is a bit distracting. (Not that some folks out there couldn’t stand to be a touch more secular and less horrifyingly barbaric in their attempts at existential comfort.)

Yet it’s not nearly as distracting as Pinker’s second selection of effective prose: a personal essay written by his wife.

Again, the reader balks. This guy is trying to tell us how to make choices in writing? It hasn’t occurred to him that we might suspect his own emotions or financial interests are involved? This is where I almost pitched my Kindle off the porch.

But even when Pinker’s own sense of style (or taste, or class) wavers, his brain-stem-deep knowledge of how language works makes the advice in the book widely applicable, and easy to remember and apply; much of it boils down to reinforcing a couple of sensible principles. He demonstrates the usefulness of Strunk’s old saw, “Omit needless words,” with science: each extra word taxes the reader’s memory in several ways. But don’t go overboard:

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.