Steven Pinker — A Sense of Style

This post is a reflection on Steven Pinker’s 2014 book, A Sense of Style.  

Like every good writer, Pinker spends less time talking about how to write well and more time showing examples of top-notch prose. 

The best way to learn how to write well is to observe the craft of the best writers.  Instead of trying to figure out how to follow standard bits of advice — be clear, be concise — you examine pieces of writing that really grab you and then distill useful lessons from these cases.  Induction puts meat on the bones of textbook admonitions.  How did the author grab and keep your attention?  Where did the little bursts of pleasure come from in the text?  What are the rules of thumb that capture the technique the author used to produce these effects, which you can then try to put into practice?

Following Pinker’s lead, I’m going to stop talking about writing and show a few of the examples he provides early in his book.  

Here are three of my favorites, which show the wide array of writers and writing genres that display a winning style.  One is scientist, the second an advice columnist, and the third an obituary writer.  The best writing can be found almost anywhere, once you start looking for it.

This is Richard Dawkins, from his book Unweaving the Rainbow:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Here is Pauline Phillips, who adopted the pen name Abigail Van Buren to write her Dear Abby advice column:

Dear Abby: Our son married a girl when he was in the service. They were married in February and she had an 8 1/2-pound baby girl in August. She said the baby was premature. Can an 8 1/2-pound baby be this premature?

—Wanting to Know

Dear Wanting: The baby was on time. The wedding was late. Forget it.

And here is Margalit Fox, longtime obituary writer for the New York Times:


Helen Gurley Brown, who as the author of Sex and the Single Girl shocked early-1960s America with the news that unmarried women not only had sex but thoroughly enjoyed it—and who as the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine spent the next three decades telling those women precisely how to enjoy it even more—died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger. . . .

As Cosmopolitan’s editor from 1965 until 1997, Ms. Brown was widely credited with being the first to introduce frank discussions of sex into magazines for women. The look of women’s magazines today—a sea of voluptuous models and titillating cover lines—is due in no small part to her influence.

In summarizing what we can learn from these examples, Pinker provides a brief set of principles for good writing that every writer ought to post next to the computer:

an insistence on fresh wording and concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary;

an attention to the readers’ vantage point and the target of their gaze;

the judicious placement of an uncommon word or idiom against a backdrop of simple nouns and verbs;

the use of parallel syntax;

the occasional planned surprise;

the presentation of a telling detail that obviates an explicit pronouncement;

the use of meter and sound that resonate with the meaning and mood.

And Pinker adds one more observation:

The authors also share an attitude: they do not hide the passion and relish that drive them to tell us about their subjects. They write as if they have something important to say. But no, that doesn’t capture it. They write as if they have something important to show. And that, we shall see, is a key ingredient in the sense of style.

Nuff said.

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