Steven Pinker’s 13 Rules for Good Writing

Pho­to by Rose Lin­coln, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

What is good writ­ing? The ques­tion requires con­text. Each type of writ­ing has its norms. Some guide­lines apply across disciplines—consult your Strunk and White or any of the hun­dreds of hand­books rec­om­mend­ing strong verbs and min­i­mal use of pas­sive voice. Still, you wouldn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly put the ques­tion to an exper­i­men­tal poet if your con­cern is infor­ma­tive writ­ing (though maybe you should). Maybe bet­ter to ask a schol­ar who writes clear prose.

Har­vard Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­o­gy Steven Pinker could serve as such a guide, giv­en the pop­u­lar­i­ty of his books with the read­ing pub­lic (their debat­able mer­its for cer­tain crit­ics aside). Luck­i­ly for his readers—and those gen­er­al­ly seek­ing to bet­ter their writing—Pinker has offered his ser­vices free on Twit­ter with a 13-point list of rules. Unlike­ly to cause con­tro­ver­sy among Eng­lish teach­ers, Pinker’s guide­lines enact the suc­cinct­ness they rec­om­mend.

Rants about the unin­tel­li­gi­bil­i­ty of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing have become genre all their own, but jar­gon and spe­cial­ized ter­mi­nol­o­gy have their place in cer­tain nich­es, and there’s noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with dif­fi­cul­ty. Read­ers can argue amongst them­selves about whether some kinds of writ­ing are need­less­ly over­com­pli­cat­ed. (Fair­ly or not, post­struc­tural­ist French philoso­phers take a beat­ing on this score, but spend some time with Kant or Hegel and see how eas­i­ly you breeze through.)

Yet most of us are not pro­fes­sion­al philoso­phers, sci­en­tists, or the­o­rists writ­ing only for col­leagues or coter­ies. When we write, we want to com­mu­ni­cate clear­ly: to inform, per­suade, and even enter­tain a gen­er­al read­er­ship. In order to do that, we need to min­i­mize abstrac­tions, appeal to the sens­es, clear away clut­ter and make con­nec­tions for our read­ers. Revi­sion is key. Read­ing aloud gives the ear a chance to weed out clum­si­ness the eye can miss. All of these trust­ed strate­gies appear in Pinker’s list.

One point Pinker adds to the usu­al pre­scrip­tions has a suit­ably psy­cho­log­i­cal bent, and an odd­ly Bib­li­cal-sound­ing name: the “Curse of Knowl­edge.” Know­ing too much about a sub­ject can make it “hard to imag­ine what it’s like not to know it.” For those who want to know more about clear, con­cise writ­ing, or who need the inevitable refresh­er from which even the knowl­edge­able ben­e­fit, see Pinker’s 13 rules below or on Twit­ter.

  1. Reverse-engi­neer what you read. If it feels like good writ­ing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why? 
  2. Prose is a win­dow onto the world. Let your read­ers see what you are see­ing by using visu­al, con­crete lan­guage.
  3. Don’t go meta. Min­i­mize con­cepts about con­cepts, like “approach, assump­tion, con­cept, con­di­tion, con­text, frame­work, issue, lev­el, mod­el, per­spec­tive, process, range, role, strat­e­gy, ten­den­cy,” and “vari­able.”
  4. Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appear­ance.”
  5. Beware of the Curse of Knowl­edge: when you know some­thing, it’s hard to imag­ine what it’s like not to know it. Min­i­mize acronyms & tech­ni­cal terms. Use “for exam­ple” lib­er­al­ly. Show a draft around, & pre­pare to learn that what’s obvi­ous to you may not be obvi­ous to any­one else.
  6. Omit need­less words (Will Strunk was right about this).
  7. Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire).
  8. Old infor­ma­tion at the begin­ning of the sen­tence, new infor­ma­tion at the end.
  9. Save the heav­i­est for last: a com­plex phrase should go at the end of the sen­tence.
  10. Prose must cohere: read­ers must know how each sen­tence is relat­ed to the pre­ced­ing one. If it’s not obvi­ous, use “that is, for exam­ple, in gen­er­al, on the oth­er hand, nev­er­the­less, as a result, because, nonethe­less,” or “despite.”
  11. Revise sev­er­al times with the sin­gle goal of improv­ing the prose.
  12. Read it aloud.
  13. Find the best word, which is not always the fan­ci­est word. Con­sult a dic­tio­nary with usage notes, and a the­saurus.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Steven Pinker: “Dear Human­ists, Sci­ence is Not Your Ene­my”

7 Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Roberto Sumatra-Bosch - The Falcon of the Laurentians says:

    14. Under­stand exact­ly what you’re doing with your prose, and exact­ly the pur­pose of doing that where you are doing it. Is it expo­si­tion of fact, advanc­ing the nar­ra­tive or reflect­ing in analy­sis to illu­mi­nate dimen­sions of the sto­ry — or argu­ment — that need to be exposed in par­al­lel? If you can’t explain exact­ly why you need to say some­thing, you haven’t thought enough about your expo­si­tion strat­e­gy. If Stravin­sky led The Rite of Spring with the sac­ri­fice scene, the riots would have inter­rupt­ed the rest of the show.

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