The Sense of Style

"The Sense of Style is not a reference manual in which you can find the answer to every question about hyphenation and capitalization. Nor is it a remedial guide for badly educated students who have yet to master the mechanics of a sentence. Like the classic guides, it is designed for people who know how to write and want to write better."

- The Sense of Style, page 7

Whether or not we ultimately secure writing endorsements from our LinkedIn connections, all of us should want to improve the words, sentences and paragraphs we continually ask our readers to read.

It shows empathy. It respects irreplaceable time and attention. And “a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, an elegant turn of phrase” can be a source of delight for those whom we most want to delight.

In The Sense of Style, Steven A. Pinker provides reasoned, practical advice on how to write clearer, more engaging prose. Whether he’s reverse-engineering good writing to help us develop a writerly ear or showing how a better understanding of syntax can avoid convoluted and misleading sentences, his primary goal is to help things go right when “so much can go wrong in a passage of prose.”

For me, what makes this book most actionable is its encouragement to treat the entire writing process as “a form of pleasurable mastery.” To do that, we must be willing to take a circuitous path to success that may involve repeated course corrections.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Mistakes Are Part of the Game

"An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game."
- The Sense of Style, page 12

Full disclosure: My fingers are trembling above my QWERTY keypad as I type. I am, after all, writing a summary of a book on writing and it’s rather disconcerting. What if a subject and verb fail to agree? What if I end a sentence with a preposition? What if the entire summary bores you to tears? What if I carelessly slip in more clichés like “bore you to tears”?

According to Pinker, this debilitating fear is keeping me from enjoying the lifelong challenge of mastering the written word. And it’s not the writing itself that scares me. It’s the imagined purist out there who’s no doubt eager to leave a comment on this summary that says (and I paraphrase): “Gotcha!”

Pinker would have us approach our writing with the same enthusiasm we bring to our favorite hobbies and other endeavors. We must strive for excellence without obsessing over those purists more concerned about supposed perfection than improved clarity.

Missteps are part of the journey. Let’s enjoy the process of bettering our writing with each new attempt.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Good Writing Overcomes the Curse of Knowledge

"The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know."
- The Sense of Style, page 57

When we write, it’s easy to assume our readers know the points we’re trying to make and understand all of the terminology we’re using to make them.

Pinker calls this the curse of knowledge and we ought not to write as though our readers know more than they actually do about what we’re trying to convey. He encourages us to avoid jargon, abbreviations, technical vocabulary and other catchwords that “flow out of our fingers automatically.”

He’s not saying a biologist must spell out messenger ribonucleic acid every time she instead chooses the mRNA abbreviation. But he does suggest a fellow scientist could replace “murine model” with “rats and mice” without using up any additional space on the page or being any less scientific.

This concept of the curse of knowledge reminded me of the board game, Trivial Pursuit. When it first hit store shelves in the Eighties, many in my circle played it. Invariably, a questioner would pick up a card, read the question and whine, “you get all the easy ones,” because everyone simply had to know the name of the videographer who’d captured the historic footage of JFK’s assassination.

Our first drafts will no doubt include many similar assumptions. And those early drafts will, at times, cause our readers to feel as though they’re late to a conversation that had been going on without them.

Missteps are part of the journey. Let’s enjoy the process of bettering our writing with each new attempt. (By the way, his name was Abraham Zapruder, but you already knew that.)

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Good Writing Is an Exercise in Discernment

"Dealing with matters of usage is not like playing chess, proving theorems, or solving textbook problems in physics, where the rules are clear and flouting them is an error. It is more like research, journalism, criticism, and other exercises of discernment."
- The Sense of Style, page 300

Steven Pinker contends that good writing involves choice after choice after choice. When must we follow the letter of usage law? On what occasions would our readers be better served by splitting an infinitive? It’s up to us to decide.

Missteps are part of the journey. But working tirelessly to avoid missteps will keep us from following the negative example of the fictional Charles Bingley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“Oh!” cried Miss Bingley, “Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest.”

“My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them—by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.”

Let’s never say that. Let’s never think that. Let’s keep our writing from becoming what Pinker calls “a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version of one’s notes.”

And as we work toward that pleasant mastery, let’s “remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”

Missteps are part of the journey. Let’s enjoy the process of bettering our writing with each new attempt.

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Bill Stadick

ABOUT Bill Stadick

I studied poetry and English literature in college then debt-stumbled into advertising, a job where words actually mattered. A few decades into it now, I recently left a communications firm in Wisconsin to start Page 17, Inc...
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