I just finished reading Steven Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, and here’s the crux of what I want to tell you about it: Go buy this book!
Need more than that? OK, let me explain.
The Sense of Style isn’t a book for beginning or poor writers. “It is designed,” writes Pinker, “for people who know how to write and want to write better.” It’s aimed especially at writers who are trapped in –ese writing. You know: legalese, bureaucratese, academese, and the like. The goal is to learn how to better discuss abstract ideas in concrete terms.
Pinker starts by defining good writing through examples. He deconstructs his examples, pointing to, for instance, the power of parallel construction and of later breaking that construction. He identifies vivid words and unexpected turns in sentences. Even if you don’t agree with all his conclusions, you start to learn how to deconstruct sentences for yourself.
The rest of the book teaches you how to create that good writing—or help your writer create it. Chapter 2 introduces readers to “classic style,” a term coined by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in Clear and Simples as the Truth. Here’s Pinker explaining the style:
The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. … The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.*
That conversation can only happen if the writer accurately determines what readers know and don’t know. It turns out that we humans are really good at grossly overestimating other people’s knowledge. While you don’t want to talk down to readers, you also don’t want to talk over their heads.
Chapter 3 identifies pitfalls to watch for, such as technical terms, and ways to “slice away layers of abstraction,” such as including short explanations for those technical terms and using ordinary terms when possible. We copyeditors often ask our writers, “Will readers understand this term?” Pinker tells us, “Probably not.”
Next up is syntax. How many times have you found a sentence you knew wasn’t quite right but didn’t know exactly why? The author digs in to how we process sentences in our heads and how we can look at problem sentences in order to fix them. As is generally true of Pinker’s writing, the topic is heady but the explanation is straightforward.
Once you know how to construct better sentences, you have to link them together into a coherent whole. “Whenever one sentence comes after another, readers need to see a connection between,” Pinker writes. “So eager are readers to seek coherence that they will often supply it when none exists.” He lists some common ordering schemes, with specific examples of how to create an arc of coherence throughout a piece.
The book closes with a mini usage guide.The author discusses many common usage problems and hot buttons, applying a healthy dose of common sense to them. After a detailed discussion of the current state of whom, for example, he says, “The best advice to writers is to calibrate their use of whom to the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality they desire.”
This isn’t a book to skim through or jump around in. Spend some time with it, reading it from beginning to end, absorbing the theory and practices Pinker offers. Bookmark sections to refer to later. Create checklists and cheat sheets, if you will. Pinker’s writing style makes doing so easy.
This book deserves a place with your favorite reference books; you’ll refer to it often. You may even want to give a copy to your favorite writer as a holiday gift.
Read more about The Sense of Style in Mark Allen’s “Responses Mixed as Pinker Tries to Add Sense to Style.”
*Don’t let Pinker’s use of masculine pronouns for writers and feminine pronouns for readers distress you. He flips the pronouns in alternating chapters.