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Why Good People Write Bad Prose

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the-sense-of-styleSo you think you can write? Steve Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century defines and exemplifies good writing. For him, true prose is defined by classic style, which is not as high and mighty as it sounds. Simply, it shows the reader something in the world and strives for clear, concrete prose. It is a window, showing the world through a glass clearly.

Pinker provides a diverse set of examples such a passage from Dawkins, an obituary, and a Dear Abby column, along with comic strips. His strongest chapter, “The Curse of Knowledge,” gets to the heart of the matter: “The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.” Knowledge can be a blessing or a curse depending on how you use it. So can writing.

If Stunk and White’s advice can be reduced to the timeless dictum “Omit needless words,” then Pinker’s advice is “Write well.” No matter how well-read you are or how big your vocabulary is, one must be mindful of the audience: “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.” To write well, one must constantly be mindful of the audience. Why use the word “differentiate” when “differ” will do?

Pinker’s book, along with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, is the kind of guide any aspiring writer should follow because good writing isn’t just a way to transfer knowledge but can also, Pinker concludes, “add beauty to the world.”

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 truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world.

* For a good and bad review of Pinker’s latest book, see Nathan Heller’s “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar” and Charles McGrath’s “Steven Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style,’ “ by Charles McGrath.


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