In this book, Pinker works at "replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence" (p. 6). Although he lauds the the great style-guide writers, such as Strunk & White, he also cautions against stringent language and grammar rules that seem to regard language as static instead of evolving and suggest that good writing is as simple as applying certain rules.
For me, it's a good reminder. With a technical writing background, I often catch myself offering bulleted lists to grant-writers, including 'get rid of all passive voice' and 'cut out hyperbole.' And, sure, this is in response to the overly complicated and layperson-unfriendly proposal-writing I often see, but I think we can learn from Pinker to find a balance between grammar rules and overly complicated writing that is not accessible to most.
Pinker argues for considering style in your writing for three reasons:
- to make sure your reader understands: Unless it's in your diary, your writing is meant to communicate, so make sure you're doing that effectively.
- to build trust: As Pinker argues, sloppy or careless writing also communicates something to employers (or grant reviewers). It suggests that if you can't craft a resume or a proposal well, how can you be trusted to do a good job in the workplace or responsibly manage a research project?
- to offer joy: If you are reading a great novel this summer, you understand the importance of this, but it's also worth remembering for any other sort of writing, whether that be a publication you're developing or a grant proposal - do not sterilize your writing of your passion. Let your passion always infuse your writing.
Pinker points out that we're often told that using the passive voice or using alliteration is bad practice, but that's simply not a hard and fast rule, and I'm not just defending alliteration because my name is Naomi Nishi! Instead we need to understand who we're writing for, what we're trying to tell them, and what's the best way to tell them. Oftentimes, in academia and in grant-writing, we think that all emotive words are inappropriate, but is that right even when our goal is to get our reader to feel something? In grant-writing, one of our key goals is to get our reader excited about our idea. Ridding our writing of anything that conveys excitement then is bad practice.
I'll admit something to you. Although I am a card-carrying Technical Writer (OK, I don't have a card, but a diploma), I have never been a stringent grammarian. So, as an experimental psychologist and a linguist, Pinker speaks to my writerly soul in his acknowledgement of the messy and dynamic nature of language where knowing "the rules" is useful, but accepting that these rules are and should be broken when it is for the good of your writing. I hope you will enjoy this series; I'm looking forward to it!
The Sense of Style - Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker's Website