Sign up FAST! Login

Pinker on the Art and Science of Beautiful Writing

The Sense of Style: Psycholinguist Steven Pinker on the Art and Science of Beautiful Writing | Brain Pickings

His own intention, then, is to “distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings” and to supplant “dogma about usage with reason and evidence,” so that we can learn to apply these insights mindfully rather than robotically and begin to counter the mindless momentum of language George Orwell lamented. He enumerates the three main reasons style matters, and matters today:

First, it ensures that writers will get their messages across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose…

Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily…

Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures… This thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.

Stashed in: Words!, Emotion, Trust, Beauty, Awesome, Writing!, @brainpicker, Reference

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

“Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”

But even as we master this rather unnatural human application, the difference between good writing and great writing is vast, bridged only by the miraculous mastery of style. “Style is the physiognomy of the mind,” wrote Schopenhauer. “It is a more reliable key to character than the physiognomy of the body.”

Phsyiognomy is a really great word.

I do believe style adds trust, beauty, and emotional resonance. 

Great writing moves us. 

Style over fashion every day...

Fashion changes regularly. Style is... never out of style.

I haven't read Pinker's style book yet, but from what I see in its Amazon reviews it's not especially practical for those seeking to improve their writing. However, as a guide that deflates a lot of the myths about what is good writing, I suspect it would be useful. It's definitely on my "to read" list.

To improve your writing a good simple place to start would be a book like Stanley Fish's How to Write Sentences

I read a lot of books, and especially with fiction I like to alternate between a master (e.g., Nabokov, Woolfe, Murikami. Mitchell, and many others), and pulp genre fiction (just about anything you'd find in the book and magazine section of a big drugstore). The difference in ability is amazing. I suspect it may take some time to develop the skills as a reader to really notice the difference. I recall during my high school days that I found some of the classics frustrating reads. That really only happens to me now with books that are more than 150+ years old, where the English used is antiquated.

Thanks - great tip.  Reading well does help develop discernment.  

My guilty pleasure are periodicals like Car and Driver, Sports Illustrated and Outside Online.  Sometimes their (brazenly rhapsodic) non-fiction is elevated to great storytelling.  

It's funny, I've been thinking of subscribing or re-subscribing to a number of periodicals. I just want to make sure doing so doesn't take up too much of my book reading time. 

Periodical reading time should be separate from book reading time.

And both should be separate from Internet reading time.

You May Also Like: