Writing well can be challenging, and the work is sometimes intimidating. In an effort to make the process easier for all of us, Eric Barker of Time reached out to Steven Pinker to talk about the rules and science behind good writing.
Pinker offers tips for becoming a better writer. He is a cognitive scientist and linguist at Harvard, and he was recently ranked as one of the top 100 most eminent psychologists of the modern era.
His latest book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Below are six tips from the Harvard linguist to make you a better writer.
- Be visual—make your reader see
“We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from ‘I think I understand’ to ‘I understand ,’ we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images.”
- Don’t assume everyone knows what you know
“…another bit of cognitive science that is highly relevant is a phenomenon called ‘the curse of knowledge.’ Namely, the inability that we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something that we do know. And that has been studied in various guises in the psychological literature. People assume that the words that they know are common knowledge. That the facts that they know are universally known… the writer doesn’t stop to think what the reader doesn’t know…Show a draft to some people who are similar to our intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. This sounds banal but is in fact profound. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us.”
- Don’t bury the lead—tell the reader what your point is
“Readers always have to fill in the background, read between the lines, connect the dots. And that means that they’re applying their background knowledge to understanding the text in question. If they don’t know which background knowledge to apply, any passage of writing will be so sketchy and elliptical, that it’ll be incomprehensible. And that’s why journalists say, ‘Don’t bury the lead.’ Basically, a writer has to make it clear to the reader what the topic of the passage is and what the point of the passage is. That is, the writer has to have something to talk about and the writer has to have something to say… The exact place in which the point of a text is displayed is less important than the imperative to divulge it somewhere not too far from the beginning.”
- You don’t always have to play by the rules, but you should try
“That’s right: when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum. The editors of a dictionary read a lot, keeping their eyes open for new words and senses that are used by many writers in many contexts, and the editors add or change the definitions accordingly…There is no tribunal. There’s no rules committee when it comes to English. It’s not like the rules of Major League Baseball which are exactly what the rules committee stipulates them to be. That would just never work with language. There are hundreds of millions of English speakers and they are constantly adding new terms to the language. They’re constantly changing shades of meaning.”
- Read, and read a lot!
“I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.”
“Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that, and after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.”