Advice

Scholars Talk Writing: Steven Pinker

'Good prose requires dedication to the craft of writing, and our profession simply doesn’t reward it.'

August 01, 2016

Steven Pinker
S teven Pinker is about as close as you can come to being an academic celebrity. The Harvard professor of psychology has written seven books for a general readership in addition to his scholarly work, which is wide-ranging. Pinker frequently writes about language for The New York Times, The Guardian, Time, and The Atlantic, and also tackles subjects such as education, morality, politics, bioethics, and violence.

All of which makes him a prime candiate for this Q&A series, Scholars Talk Writing. Listing all his honors and awards could cause us mere mortals to feel inferior; you can find them on his website, Stevenpinker.com (where you’ll also see that he has a great head of hair).

Perhaps the most important thing for writers from across the disciplines to know about Pinker is that he has a recent book: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, which should be required reading. (An excerpt can be found here.)

Who are the writers who influenced you in terms of your own prose?

Pinker: Since many people are under the misconception that you have to write badly in academia to be taken seriously, I’ll just mention some renowned scholars in my own field whom I read as an undergraduate and who were sparkling prose stylists.

My adviser Roger Brown was a great social psychologist, the founder of the modern study of language acquisition in children, and the author of the delightful Words and Things: An Introduction to Language and Social Psychology. George A. Miller, a founder of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, was also a dazzling writer; his sprightly 1956 article, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" is one of the most cited in the history of the field. Indeed, 20th-century psychology was blessed with many other fine writers.

D.O. Hebb and B.F. Skinner were contemporaries, had rival Theories of Everything (neural networks and behaviorism, respectively), and were both aspiring novelists. The team of Alan Newell and Herbert Simon co-founded artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Social psychology had Gordon Allport, Leon Festinger, and Stanley Schacter, among others. And, of course, it all began with one of the greatest writers in the history of modern English (and the namesake of the building I work in), William James. So don’t tell me that successful academics can’t be good writers!

How did you learn to write for a general readership?

Pinker: From the time I was in graduate school, I took writing seriously. I lingered over passages of writing I enjoyed and tried to reverse-engineer them. I read style manuals for pleasure. When I wrote review articles, I strove to explain abstruse theories in linguistics and AI in clear language. I dropped in bits of whimsy when they fit and didn’t feel forced or gratuitous. I tried to apply knowledge from my own field, psycholinguistics, on what makes a sentence easy to parse. I got the idea to cross over when an editor at MIT Press read one of my journal articles and asked me if I had ever considered trying my hand at popular writing.

You’ve done a wonderful job diagnosing the reasons why academic writing stinks. Can you give the CliffsNotes version here?

Pinker: First, academic writers start off with the wrong tacit goal. Rather than trying to show their readers something interesting in the world (what Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner call "classic" style), their main goal is to prove that they are not naïve about how terribly difficult it is to assert anything about anything in their field (what they call "self-conscious," "ironic," or "postmodern" style). In that defensive stance, they clutter their prose with hedges, apologies, shudder quotes, narcissistic observations about their profession (as opposed to its subject matter), and metadiscourse (discourse about discourse).

Second, academics suffer from the Curse of Knowledge — the difficulty of appreciating what it’s like for someone not to know something that you know. So they fail to explain their jargon, spell out their acronyms, or supply concrete details that would allow the reader to form visual images of what they’re describing.

Finally, they have little incentive to care. Good prose requires dedication to the craft of writing, and our profession simply doesn’t reward it. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and few reviewers will veto a manuscript or a grant application just because it’s a painful slog to read.

What strategies can academics (and others) use to write less stinkily?

Pinker: Prose quality must itself be a distinct goal in the writing process. Getting the literature review and the methods and the data and the interpretation and the argument down is not sufficient for the paper to be clear, let alone pleasant to read — at least one pass must be dedicated solely to improving the language.

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

Ideally, there should be additional passes after enough time has elapsed that the prose is not too familiar to you. Then show a draft to a sample of readers and ask if they can follow it. You’ll often be surprised to find that what’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to anyone else.

And lighten up. Explain your material as you would to a sympathetic and intelligent friend who happens not to know what you know. Don’t walk on eggshells, terrified that you’ll let slip the horrible truth that you’re not rigorous, sophisticated, and cultivated enough to belong to the club.

Which style manuals do you like or recommend?

Pinker: For a beginning writer, a student, or an inveterate dispenser of academese, The Elements of Style is not a bad place to start. For writers seeking more insight and depth, Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth is a treasure; it’s simply brilliant. Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is also excellent. Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer is a witty reference manual, and the usage notes sprinkled throughout the American Heritage Dictionary: 5th Edition are more sophisticated and evidence-based. For historical and literary depth, I recommend Oliver Kamm’s new Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage.

What or how do you teach your students about writing?

Pinker: Recently I’ve followed the time-honored academic tradition of assigning them my own book. I also provide feedback, including fine points like where to use a semicolon, and the difference between "to hone" and "to home."

What is your own worst habit?

Pinker: Prolixity.

That seems to be a common answer, and a problem many academics have. When I was an editor, I gave out contracts for manuscripts of 100,000 words and frequently they came in at twice that. Is this because scholars feel that they must use everything they’ve ever learned?

Pinker: In part this bad habit comes from defensiveness: Writers fear all the possible objections and fend them off pre-emptively. In part it comes from self-presentation: the desire to flaunt one’s erudition and justify one’s history of reading and research. And in part it comes from incompetence.

A well-structured essay carries the reader along without a lot of signposting. But if the essay is structured in the order in which thoughts occur to the writer, he or she will have to erect obtrusive previews, summaries, and signposts to prevent the reader from getting lost. A lack of attention to concision can fatten prose at every level of organization. Strunk and White’s prime directive is to "omit needless words" (a lovely example of itself). But it takes skill and effort to spot and extirpate the needless words — and the needless sentences, paragraphs, and sections.

How do you go about cutting your own prose?

Pinker: As I revise, I consciously strive to omit needless material, a habit I picked up from writing newspaper op-eds. If you don’t write to length, a deadline-pressured editor will hack off slabs of your prose with little concern for coherence or completeness, so better you than him or her. And I discovered that in squeezing the essay into the prescribed length, the quality of the prose often improves as if by magic.

How do you approach revision?

Pinker: Recursively and frequently. After writing a sentence, I immediately revise it. The same with each paragraph and section. Then I revise the entire chapter in a single pass from beginning to end — to clean up the piecemeal changes and enforce coherence and flow. After completing a draft of the book, I gather comments from expert colleagues, friends, and my mother, go back to the beginning, and revise each chapter twice. Then two more passes over the entire manuscript for a final cleanup and polishing. Then it goes to the copy editor.

Really, your mother? Is she available to read my stuff?

Pinker: Academics have a bad habit of using "my mother" as shorthand for an unsophisticated reader. But I actually mean my mother. Roslyn Pinker — a retired high-school vice principal and a voracious consumer of text — is a sophisticated reader, and more to the point, my idealized reader. Academics also have the misconception that when they write for nonacademics, they have to imagine communicating with a truck driver or chicken plucker, and as a result tend to patronize their readers. But most chicken pluckers don’t buy books. Instead, one should imagine writing for a reader that is as intelligent and as intellectually sophisticated as you are but happens not to know what you know. I’ll ask Roz if she’s available.

You’re married to the novelist Rebecca Goldstein. What have you learned from her about style?

Pinker: A horror of cliché. An imperative to show and not tell. A taste for the judiciously placed offbeat word — she periodically sends me to the dictionary, one of the great joys of reading. (That’s how I learned ichor, apotropaic, borborygmus, tenebrous, hyalescence, cinereous, and swinge.)

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.