'The Sense of Style' argues for writing that is direct, economical, and precise
Linguist Steven Pinker offers a “Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” with a look back at the 20th century’s lingual lessons.
The Sense of Style, the new book by the neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker, is the latest blossoming of a perennial: the mid-career writer’s advice for writing well. From grammar guides to usage primers, from Strunk and White to "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves," these books, at their most significant, become mainstays of high school curricula and quiet but powerful influences on how whole generations learn to write. In their highest form, such as in Orwell’s much-anthologized "Politics and the English Language," they become significant works of literary criticism. Orwell’s essay doesn’t offer much guidance for improving one’s prose. But it remains a keen lesson in bullshit detection, in learning when highfalutin language conceals pernicious ideology. That, in itself, may steer many young writers away from the hazards of abstraction and euphemism.
Conscious of this history, Pinker’s entry comes freighted with some anxiety of influence. He compliments his forebears as much as he points out their deficiencies. Claiming his place on the dais, Pinker rejects “the graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens.” Even the “classic” style manuals were “written by starchy Englishmen and rock-ribbed Yankees,” who, he says, managed to drain the humor and joy out of writing. This is slightly misleading. E.B. White, whose name has become one half of a shorthand for the eponymous style guide he developed with William Strunk, is now remembered as a storyteller as well as a fine essayist and humorist. His writing is synonymous with the urbane, witty, middlebrow style that flourished under New Yorker editor William Shawn.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that Pinker’s conception of good writing isn’t very new but is instead a refined version of an old standard. He is a partisan of what Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner called the “classic” style. Classic prose is direct, economical, and precise. It treats the reader with intelligence and “is confident about its own voice.” This kind of writing is comfortable in varying registers and directs the viewer’s gaze, almost like a cinematographer, toward what’s important. It’s adaptable, too, capable of being used for a corporate memo or an academic’s monograph. This versatility is key: one detects a populist air in Pinker’s argument, a sense that he wants everyone to learn how to write and think better.
Pivoting from linguistic theory to practical examples of everyday challenges, Pinker tells readers how to detect good prose and what makes some writers “incomprehensible.” He shows how to create a “tree of phrases” – his version of diagramming a sentence, exposing its constituent parts. He demonstrates a talent for quotation, drawing from Thomas and Turner, the authors of "Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose," the lesson that “accuracy becomes pedantry if it is indulged for its own sake.” To craft an argument, Pinker says, apply sentences like layers of lacquer, building towards a cumulative effect. Work first from what is known. “Given always precedes new,” he writes, aphoristically.
Other pieces of Pinkerian advice tend to be commonsensical: eliminate needless words; show your work to trusted readers; read your prose aloud to gauge style, pacing, and flow; avoid “the curse of knowledge.” This last bit might also be called the solipsism of expertise. Still yet another term for it might be a lack of empathy, of failing to imagine what your reader knows and doesn’t know and instead “falling back on parochial jargon and private abstractions.”
But here I am committing one of Pinker’s sins. Too many writers, he laments, are guilty of “a pernicious kind of synonymomania” – that is, redescribing the same thing in different terms, so that, for instance, a “book” in one paragraph becomes a “tome” in the next and a “volume” after that. This habit – which, as Pinker notes, is endemic in journalism – can leave some readers confused. Others may smart at a low-grade pretentiousness that mistakes variety or verbosity for creativity. Usually, it’s sufficient to say it once and plainly. In the preface to an updated edition of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," George Saunders complained about a similar phenomenon, which he called the “literary triple descriptor: ‘Todd sat at the black table, the ebony plane, the dark-hued bearer of various glasses and plates, whose white, disk-shaped, saucer-like presences mocking his futility, his impotence, his inability to act.’”
Despite Pinker’s obvious appreciation for good writing, his interest seems more utilitarian than aesthetic. There is little discussion in the book of literature, poetry, or literary journalism, although he does quote from the work of his wife, the philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The qualities that Pinker admires in classic prose – clarity, elegance, economy of style, vivid, precise imagery – describe any number of fiction writers, from Hemingway to Beckett to Hempel. But there is not much room in Pinker’s linguistic imagination for art. The longtime academic isn’t self-serious; he cracks jokes, he refuses to be prescriptivist. He believes that language is mutable and defined by how we use it – a key departure from the cultural conservatism of past style guides. Analyzing a passage from a book of cosmology, he displays a profound, even spiritual, regard for the majesty and sheer improbability of being alive.
Yet the refusal to look at literature as anything other than a knowledge-delivery system prevents "The Sense of Style" from transcending what it is: a solid guide to writing competently. Graceful but inoffensive, convincing but undramatic, the book is the prosodic equivalent of a shooting guard cruising his way to 20 points without shedding a drop of sweat.
At the same time, its political awareness doesn’t reach far beyond a consideration of a fantastically convoluted quote from Bob Dole about President Bill Clinton’s bombing of Serbia. In this era of undeclared wars and secret interpretations of law – a clandestine literary criticism with existential implications – we could use some Orwell to cut through the deception. But to paraphrase Michael Jordan, Republicans buy books, too.
Jacob Silverman’s book, "Terms of Service: Social Media, Surveillance, and the Price of Constant Connection," will be published in March by HarperCollins.