Derek Sivers

The Sense of Style - by Steven Pinker

The Sense of Style - by Steven Pinker

ISBN: 0143127799
Date read: 2015-09-01
How strongly I recommend it: 3/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Advice on being a better writer. But compare to the book “On Writing Well”, also listed here. That one is punchy and immediately useful. This one is a more verbose, in-depth analysis of the use of language. Also useful, but, well, I wish it was shorter.

my notes

Linger over good writing wherever you find it and reflect on what makes it good.

Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived.

The deliberate use of surprising transitions - colons, dashes, block quotations - is one of the hallmarks of lively prose. A lesser writer might have introduced this with the plodding “Here is another example of a column by Mrs. Phillips,” but Fox interrupts her narration without warning to redirect our gaze.

A writer, like a cinematographer, manipulates the viewer’s perspective on an ongoing story, with the verbal equivalent of camera angles and quick cuts.

Share a number of practices:
* an insistence on fresh wording and concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary
* an attention to the readers’ vantage point and the target of their gaze
* the judicious placement of an uncommon word or idiom against a backdrop of simple nouns and verbs
* the use of parallel syntax
* the occasional planned surprise
* the presentation of a telling detail that obviates an explicit pronouncement
* the use of meter and sound that resonate with the meaning and mood.

Write as if they have something important to show.

Which simulation should a writer immerse himself in when composing a piece for a more generic readership, such as an essay, an article, a review, an editorial, a newsletter, or a blog post? The literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner have singled out one model of prose as an aspiration for such writers today. They call it classic style, and explain it in a wonderful little book called Clear and Simple as the Truth.

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity.

The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks.

Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it.

Writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation.

The metaphor of showing implies that there is something to see. The things in the world the writer is pointing to, then, are concrete: people (or other animate beings) who move around in the world and interact with objects. The metaphor of conversation implies that the reader is cooperative. The writer can count on her to read between the lines, catch his drift, and connect the dots, without his having to spell out every step in his train of thought.

Classic style is not a contemplative or romantic style, in which a writer tries to share his idiosyncratic, emotional, and mostly ineffable reactions to something.

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Sometimes we do have to write about abstract ideas. What classic style does is explain them as if they were objects and forces that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.

Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius.

They recognize that it’s hard to know the truth, and that our ways of understanding the world must constantly be scrutinized for hidden biases. It’s just that good writers don’t flaunt this anxiety in every passage they write; they artfully conceal it for clarity’s sake.

Remembering that classic style is a pretense also makes sense of the seemingly outlandish requirement that a writer know the truth before putting it into words.

Of course no writer works that way, but that is irrelevant.

As with the celebrity chef: the messy work has been done beforehand and behind the scenes.

One way to introduce a topic without metadiscourse is to open with a question: What makes a name rise and fall in popularity?

Credits the reader with enough intelligence to realize that many concepts aren’t easy to define and that many controversies aren’t easy to resolve. She is there to see what the writer will do about it.

If you’re not comfortable using an expression without apologetic quotation marks, you probably shouldn’t be using it at all.

Classic style minimizes abstractions, which cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, –ation, or –ing.

A writer who has forgotten that he should be staging an event for the reader. He knows how the story turned out, so he just describes the outcome (something was done). But the reader, with no agent in sight, has no way to visualize the event being moved forward by its instigator.

Keep in mind the guiding metaphor of classic style: a writer, in conversation with a reader, directs the reader’s gaze to something in the world.

Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows - that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

“If you ever hear yourself saying, ‘I think I understand this,’ that means you don’t.”

A third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from “I think I understand” to “I understand,” we need to see the sights and feel the motions.

Slicing away the layers of familiar abstraction.

Show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar.

Hard enough to formulate a thought that is interesting and true. Only after laying a semblance of it on the page can a writer free up the cognitive resources needed to make the sentence grammatical, graceful, and, most important, transparent to the reader.

Morbidly obese phrases, together with leaner alternatives that often mean the same thing:16 make an appearance with appear with is capable of being can be is dedicated to providing provides in the event that if it is imperative that we we must brought about the organization of organized significantly expedite the process of speed up on a daily basis daily for the purpose of to in the matter of about in view of the fact that since owing to the fact that because relating to the subject of regarding.

Make an appearance and put on a performance. Why not just use the verb that spawned the zombie in the first place, like appear or perform?

Topic, then comment. Given, then new.

Light before heavy.

Principles of style that apply within a sentence, such as placing given before new information, apply to extended passages as well.

Coherence begins with the writer and reader being clear about the topic.

It’s essential to let the reader in on the topic early.

The reader needs to know whether a writer is rabbiting on about a topic in order to explain it, convey interesting new facts about it, advance an argument about it, or use it as an example of an important generalization. In other words, a writer has to have both something to talk about (the topic) and something to say (the point).

Two propositions that are similar in most ways but different in at least one way.

Write the statements using parallel syntax and vary only the words that indicate the difference.

Herons have one thing in their favor: they are opportunistic hunters. Herons have one thing not in their favor: they defend a fishing hole even when it is frozen.

Work with the ongoing newsreel in readers’ minds and describe events in chronological order: She showered before she ate is easier to understand than She ate after she showered.

You only live once should be rewritten as You live only once, with only next to the thing it quantifies, once.

“We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard.” That sounds a lot classier than “We don’t choose to go to the moon because it is easy but because it is hard.” Not “We don’t choose to go to the moon because it is easy.”

Responsible writers have to deal with counterarguments and counterevidence. But if there are enough of them, they deserve a section of their own, whose stated point is to examine the contrary position.

This divide-and-conquer strategy is better than repeatedly allowing counterexamples to intrude into the main line of an argument.

There is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a coordinator. and, because, but, or, so, also.

Dangling modifiers.

Checking into the hotel, it was nice to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.
Checking into the hotel, I was pleased to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.

Considering the hour, it is surprising that he arrived at all.
Considering the hour, we should be surprised that he arrived at all.

The implied subject of the modifier must be identical to the overt subject of the main clause.

Some dangling modifiers should be avoided, but they are not grammatical errors.

They takes part in a kind of notional agreement. No man and any girl are grammatically singular but psychologically plural: they pertain to classes with many individuals.

The pronoun they is functioning as a bound variable: a symbol that keeps track of an individual across multiple descriptions of that individual.

Experiments that measure readers’ comprehension times to the thousandth of a second have shown that singular they causes little or no delay, but generic he slows them down a lot.

We are in the midst of a historical change that’s returning singular they to the acceptability it enjoyed before a purist crackdown in the nineteenth century. A slim majority of the panel accepts If anyone calls, tell them I can’t come to the phone and Everyone returned to their seats. The usage manuals have recommended two escape hatches for the singular pronoun trap. The easiest is to express the quantified description as a plural, which makes they a grammatically honest pronoun.

You could change Every body began to have their vexation to They all began to have their vexations.

Every writer should shorten their sentences
is easily transformed into
All writers should shorten their sentences
or just
Writers should shorten their sentences.

The other escape hatch is to replace the pronoun with an indefinite or generic alternative and count on the reader’s common sense to fill in the referent: Every body began to have their vexation becomes Every body began to have a vexation, and Every dinosaur should look in his or her mirror becomes Every dinosaur should look in the mirror.

A few common errors are so uncontroversial - it’s - that they have become tantamount to the confession “I am illiterate.” They betray a history of inattention to the printed page.

Commas set off a phrase that is not an integral constituent of the sentence, and which as a result is not essential to understanding its meaning.

Susan visited her friend Teresa tells us that it’s important for us to know that Susan singled out Teresa as the person she intended to visit. In Susan visited her friend, Teresa, it’s only significant that Susan visited a friend (oh, and by the way, the friend’s name is Teresa).

A comma also signals a prosodic break: a slight pause in pronunciation.

Jane Austen and the framers of the American Constitution would get poor grades from composition teachers today, because commas are regulated less by prosody and more by syntax.

Not only are commas partly regulated by prosody, but until recently that was their principal function. Writers used to place them wherever they thought a pause felt natural, regardless of the sentence’s syntax:

One comma mistake is so common: using a comma to join two complete sentences, each of which could stand on its own.

Before the recent trend toward light punctuation, apostrophes were often used to pluralize years (the 1970’s), abbreviations (CPU’s), and symbols (@’s),

As for names ending in s like Charles and Jones, go with grammatical logic and treat them as the singulars they are: Charles’s son, not Charles’ son. Some manuals stipulate an exception for Moses.

Quotation marks signal that the author is not using words to convey their usual meaning but merely mentioning them as words.

If you really want to improve the quality of your writing, the principles you should worry about the most are critical thinking and factual diligence. First, look things up. Much of our conventional wisdom consists of friend-of-a-friend legends. Try to restrict the things you write to things that are true. If you are making a factual claim, it should be verifiable.

If you’re making a moral argument - a claim about what people ought to do - you should show how doing it would satisfy a principle or increase a good that reasonable people already accept.

Don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world. Few good ideas can be insightfully captured in a single word ending with -ism.

Most of our ideas are so crude that we can make more progress by analyzing and refining them than by pitting them against each other in a winner-take-all contest.