Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Steven Pinker on bad and good writing

The psychologist and word-usage expert has produced a new style guide with cognitive sensibilities called "The Sense of Style."

Steven Pinker, a Harvard University professor, in the book 'The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century' according to The Economist steers:

writers towards a “classic style”, in which the writer clearly points out things that may have escaped the reader’s notice, but which anyone can understand with patient guidance. Classic style uses concrete words in straightforward sentences easily parsed by man’s limited brain. Bad writing, exemplified by academese, bureaucratese and bewildering gadget manuals, does the opposite. Sentences are long, filled with abstract words, and make sense only to those who already know most of the information. (Mr Pinker admits that he struggles daily with papers in his own academic field.)

Why, psychologically, is bad writing bad? Working memory, which holds syntactic constructions in mind until they are complete, is easily overwhelmed. Mr Pinker uses memorable (and often funny) examples to show exactly what kind of sentences tax the mind. For example, violating expectations, such as upsetting chronological order, makes the reader do extra work. (When financial journalists say that an equity fell to $76 from $110, they invite confusion.) And the much-derided passive voice can make a passage flow more smoothly by preserving the ideal order of old information, then new.