Book Club | The Sense of Style
- 2 Min Read
THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT WRITING, FROM READING. AND YOU CAN, TOO.
Last summer, I oxymoronically bought Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Under-qualified, I read, reread, underlined and spilled coffee on most of Pinker’s pages. I studied how writers turn a web of thoughts into a string of words—not just any string of words, but a chain that people can read, understand and even sometimes remember. I successfully retained a few lessons in Pinker’s book. Maybe they’ll help you.
DISCLAIMER: The lessons below are not mine, rather the accepted rules of writers infinitely more talented than myself. Many of those writers exist in the world.
LESSON 1: THERE IS NO SENTENCE TOO SHORT TO BE ACCEPTABLE IN THE EYES OF GOD.
There is a central question writers should ask before starting each sentence, email or white paper: “How fast can I get to the end?” Brevity is memorable. America runs on Dunkin’. Just do it. Got milk? Sentences are like lines at the DMV—short ones are best.
LESSON 2: START SENTENCES WITH AND OR BUT.
Did a persnickety English teacher make you rewrite sentences that began with and or but? He/she/they were most likely teaching you not to write in fragments. But as an adult who can eat zebra cakes for breakfast if you so desire, starting a sentence with a conjunction is right as rain. And that’s all there is to say about it.
LESSON 3: BEWARE OF THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE.
To Pinker, the Curse of Knowledge is “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” Remember the reader is not Professor X; they can’t read your mind. Put yourself in their shoes when dishing out heaps of information. And, heaven forbid, if your writing doesn’t make sense to you, it won’t make a lick of sense to them, the reader.
LESSON 4: WATCH YOUR HEDGING.
Shun schlubby hedges like very, really, absolutely, extremely and completely. The noble goal of these little apologies is to make whatever word they modify more intense, but they achieve the exact opposite effect. Example: “I completely understand.” Completely paradoxically calls into question the degree of your understanding. Do you normally not completely understand? When possible, banish these weaklings into the wilderness. Your writing will be stronger for it.