Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

The fact that many prescriptive rules are worth keeping does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom's classroom is worth keeping.

Writing, amirite? Can't live with it, can't live without it. Or at least, I can't because most of my work involves writing. But writing is one thing, writing well is another. Steven Pinker's book is aimed at helping its readers write well.

Or at least, kind of. The books is focused on helping its readers write well in a technical sense. Style, as referred in the title, is writing in the "classical" style; this means writing with as little ambiguity as possible, and in a way that does not condescend to its readers. Here is Pinker writing about a Judith Butler passage, which Pinker feels exemplifies the opposite of classical style:
A reader of this intimidating passage can marvel at Butler's ability to juggle abstract propositions about still more abstract propositions, with no real-world referent in sight . . . . What the reader cannot do is understand it--to see with her own eyes what Butler is seeing.
Pinker identifies the "curse of knowledge," which he suggests is the root of much bad writing. The curse of knowledge is that the writer knows; when the writer writes, unfortunately, this  knowing prevents the writer from spotting ambiguity or obfuscation in his writing. The writer cannot see the ambiguity because when the writer reads his own writing, it appears clear.

I think this is right. My experience with myself, my colleagues and opposing counsel--professional writers in a sense--is that we are often blind to how confusing our writing can be. Our level of expertise works against our writing because we do not see where concepts need to be simplified; we do not see that a sentence could convey two meanings because we intuitively reject the wrong interpretation; that is, we only see the interpretation we intended to convey, not the accidentally-conveyed interpretation.

Pinker's concept of classical style is a remedy: write to maximize your audience's understanding. Simple, clear prose; not jargon-riddled, dense word-vomit. I would add, and I think Pinker would agree, that the jargon-filled and dense prose often hides undeveloped ideas.

After describing classical style, and what is not classical style, Pinker identifies a number of ways that writing can be more clear. What follows is a series of writing problems, and how to avoid them. He provides a new (to me, at least) way of diagramming sentences (using trees), how to develop and maintain "arcs of coherence," and, finally, a long list (spanning the last 100 pages of the book) of grammar myths and grammar truths.

This is the first writing style book I've ever read for general writing (I've read a handful of legal writing style books). I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it very helpful. The tree diagramming method is helpful in contemplating how one should structure sentences; his description of classical v. not classical writing was helpful in thinking about what good writing is; his list of grammar myths/truths will be my go-to source whenever I need to know how to approach a grammar problem.

Pinker explicitly disavows any interest in replacing more classic writing style guides. Having never read any others, I do not have a strong opinion about whether this work will or will not replace others. That said, I do think, for me, I will be reluctant to read older style guides because Pinker convincingly indicates that many of them are outdated. Being a more casual reader of grammar guides, I'm not sure I have the patience or fortitude to figure out which parts of Strunk and White are still good or bad. In contrast, because of The Sense of Style's more recent publication, I feel fairly confident relying on it. So, for me, this is probably going to be my definitive writing style guide for the foreseeable future.

[Sidenote: a colleague pointed out that there are hilarious one-star reviews of this book on Amazon, which, in a way, are their own endorsement of the book].

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Good review. I have a hard time expressing this to the kids in my creative writing class. Sometimes they're so attached to the idea of writing as self-expression they don't see why they should care whether something is ambiguous or clear. I hear them say things like, "This poem/story meant a lot to me personally so I chose not to make any revisions."