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Harvard’s Steven Pinker on How to Be a Great Writer

by George Mathews | The Web Writer Spotlight: Oct 2, 2017

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You wouldn't ordinarily take writing advice from a neuroscientist—but Harvard’s Steven Pinker has the intellectual chops to offer that advice.

Pinker is an acclaimed experimental psychologist, neuroscientist and linguist at Harvard, and also author of the erudite bestselling book The Sense of Style, a practical guide to clear and compelling writing.

Not only is Pinker a stylish and prolific writer—he's written such other works as the history of violence, why words don't mean what they mean, the role of genes in shaping character, how the mind works and more, but he’s also on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

 

6 Tips for Better Writing from Steven Pinker

 

Time’s Eric Barker interviewed Pinker back in 2014 on what he considers to be the best tips for better writing. Pinker offered some strategies that remain quite helpful even today. Check out a summary of his six top tips for better writing as highlighted on Barker’s site BarkingUpTheWrongTree:

 

1. Make Your Writing Visual and Conversational

 

Show, don't tell the reader about the actions, scenes and emotions you’re writing about. At the same time, be concrete and conversational. Too many writers erroneously try to impress others and sound smart.

Pinker explains:

 

“…imagine that you are in a conversation with a reader who is as competent as you are, but happens not to know some things that you know. And you orient the reader so that they can see something in the world with their own eyes that you have noticed, but they have not yet noticed… A symmetry between reader and writer. A conversational, informal style. A determination to be visual and concrete. An excitement about showing the reader something in the world that the reader can see for themselves, rather than concentrating on the activity of the people who have studied that thing.”

 

2. Guard against “The Curse of Knowledge”

 

It is easy to assume others know something you already know or that’s very familiar to you. That assumption leads to bad writing. Guard against it by explaining things clearly.

Pinker explains:

 

“…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.”

 

3. Don’t Bury the Lead

 

Tell the reader directly what your point is. And tell them early. People need a reference point so they can follow what you’re saying. Without it they’re lost.

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Pinker explains:

 

“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.”

 

4. Play by the Rules as Best You Can

 

Follow the rules of grammar as best you can because they make your writing better on average. But creative license is encouraged. To be a great writer, know the rules before you break them.

Pinker explains:

 

“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.

 

5. Read, Read, Read

 

By reading and reading and reading, your writing will inevitably improve.

Pinker explains:

 

“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.”

 

6. Revisit and Revise Your Work

 

Good writing means revising. It means you spend time to hone your words. Words won’t come out perfectly the first time. You need to beat those words into submission. It’s all in the editing and revision.

Here’s Pinker:

 

“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.”

See Also: 21 Quick Thoughts to Make the Writing Process Less Grueling.

 


George Mathews is a staff writer for WebWriterSpotlight.com. He is passionate about personal growth and development.


Image: G ambrus via Wikimedia Commons.

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