Why good people write bad prose

A review of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style by Gary Stephen Ross in The Walrus. Great, fun piece about good prose, the importance of ignorance in writing more clearly, and how coherence in structure helps us understand better.

As anyone with an inbox can attest, misused language abounds, and misunderstanding follows. Much of this misunderstanding, Pinker says, flows from what he calls “the Curse of Knowledge”—the writer’s difficulty in conceiving what it’s like for readers not to know something she knows. He’s referring mainly to jargon, shorthand, and specialized vocabulary, the use of which he calls the “single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.” This seemed to me a great oversimplification until I asked someone I’d just met what he did for a living. He said he was “managing director, digital” at a public relations firm.

 

“I don’t really know what that means.”

 

“I’m a digital and social-media strategist,” he explained. “I deliver programs, products, and strategies to our corporate clients across the spectrum of communications functions.”

 

“Sorry to be a doofus, but pretend I’m ten years old. What do you do all day? ”

 

“I teach big companies how to use Facebook.”

 

There. Quite simple, really, but arrived at only after my insistence on my ignorance.

I remember my English professors in college returning papers back to me and telling me how incoherent they were — I skipped from one thought or idea to the next. I think this was a paper on Hamlet or something where I tried to tie in Plato’s ideas of reality.** Anyway, I eventually got better, even if through very systematically preparing and analyzing (and re-analzying and editing) my writing with tedious outlines to make sure ideas build from one to the next and flow properly.

The Sense of Style further investigates the links between language and thought, and does so in ways that offer practical benefits to anyone wishing to become a better writer. Pinker contends that a “hunger for coherence [drives] the entire process of understanding language.” Is it really as simple as “Whenever one sentence comes after another, readers need to see a connection between them”? He makes a persuasive case. What he calls “coherence connectives”—despite, because, however, therefore, nonetheless, and so forth—are, he maintains, “the unsung heroes of lucid prose” and “the cement of reasoning.”

 

Pinker found that underperforming high school students tend to be flummoxed by the challenge of stringing together coherent sentences. A program that trained them to construct arguments, with an emphasis on the connection between successive ideas, dramatically improved their performance. As for troublesome passages in the hundreds of things I’ve written, and the thousands of pieces I’ve edited, the problem is, indeed, usually one of coherence: How does this sentence relate to those that precede it? Why are you telling me this now? Where are we going?

  • BONUS! The perfect writer: “Someone once asked me what made for a perfect writer. I thought about it for a long time and wrote a list.”

** Really embarrassing but I just realized that if you Google “hamlet plato,” said paper is the third result.

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