Steven Pinker has a new book due out September. It’s called The Sense of Style.
You can read, and listen to, Pinker discuss his premise for the book here.
I smiled when I read how Pinker restates many of the points I talk about with students in my business writing class. For starters, bad writing can't be blamed on the Internet, or on texting, or video-game-generation kids. There’s been bad writing as long as there’s been writing.
And good writing is hard. It takes practice and patience.
In fact, Pinker argues that writing is "cognitively unnatural". For most of human existence, nobody wrote anything. Then, for thousands of years after the invention of writing, only a fraction of humankind wrote.
Writing is an odd way to communicate. It's a process of putting down symbols that represent a wild mix of ideas, emotions, logic, reasoning, perspective, and opinions. You can't see your reader’s facial expressions or body language. Your reader can't ask for clarification. And you often don’t know much about your reader, or how much he knows about your topic.
Writing is essentially a psychological act. It’s attempt for one mind to cause ideas to appear in another mind.
Pinker suggests that one way to help you avoid confusing corporate clutter and create clear writing is to imagine yourself walking side-by-side with your reader. You see something, and you are directing your reader to see it too. As if you are pointing out a landmark, or a particular bird while on a walk.
If you think of writing this way, it can actual make writing easier. Pinker says, "We never feel any difficulty when we are pointing out something directly perceptible to somebody next to us.”
The writer’s goal is to help readers recognize something they'd be able to see, if they were looking in the right place.
So as you start your next email, imagine you're walking with your reader, while guiding him down the path to enlightenment.
“There's no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself."
-- Steven Pinker
Things we like.
How English sounds to non-English speakers.
Things to ponder.
...the right rock will be left...