I found this very useful in both my work, which is editing other people’s drafts, and my own writing. Some of it is a bit of psychological wank (Pinker is also a cognitive scientist), but there’s enough interesting, clear and useful stuff here that I’d recommend it for people who want to communicate well in writing.
This book was the object of an amusing fight between The New Yorker and The Economist, which I think the latter clearly won. Pinker’s point is basically that when you’re trying to communicate information, it’s best to write so it’s as easy as possible for people to understand you. There’s nothing valuable about being obscure and hard to comprehend; it just means you aren’t very good at communicating what you mean. The main idea I keep with me from this book are:
- If you can’t express what you mean in clear sentences, one reason may be that what you’re trying to say isn’t very clear. Go back and be precise about your thoughts as well as your words.
- Grammatical rules are there to make your sentences easier to follow. Ignore ones like ‘never end a sentence with a preposition’ or ‘avoid the passive voice’, which are mostly made up and can make sentences overly contorted. But pay attention to the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’; mixing them up means your reader has to spend a second trying to work out what you mean, which is bad.
- For complex sentences, avoid splitting long clauses, and put the longest items in a list towards the end. This saves your reader from having to ‘carry’ parts of the sentence in their head, making it more likely they’ll lose track of what’s going on. A bad sentence is, “Areas that have bombed, mostly at night, by the coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, include Aden, the last major city yet to fall to the Houthi advance, border areas where the military is deployed, and the capital Sanaa.” A better version is: “The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has bombed the capital Sanaa, as well as border areas where the military is deployed and Aden, the last major city yet to fall to the Houthi advance. The bombings have mostly taken place at night.”
- Don’t write as if you’re explaining ‘down’ to someone stupider than you. Write for someone who is exactly as clever as you, but just happens not to know something you happen to know.
Pinker isn’t talking about novel writing or writing for any kind of artistic effect, but about what he calls ‘classic style’, including newspapers, blog posts and science writing. It’s helped me write better emails and identify problems with sentences that I knew were a little faffy but couldn’t quite figure out how to fix.