By Charles Euchner
Charles Euchner is a case writer and editor at Yale School of Management. Author or editor of books on civil rights (Nobody Turn Me Around), writing (The Big Book of Writing), public policy (Urban Policy Reconsidered, Playing the Field, Governing Greater Boston), baseball (The Last Nine Innings), and more, Euchner has contributed to The Boston Globe, The American, CommonWealth, Newsweek, Education Week, The Big Roundtable, The New York Times, and many other publications. Previously he served as executive director of the Rappaport Institute at Harvard University. He blogs at TheWritingBeat.com.
Somewhere, right now, someone is bemoaning the decline of writing. Grammar scolds lay down the law on the “proper” ways to speak and write. Business executives complain about the poor quality of emails. Government bureaucrats wade through piles of regulatory documents, sending some back for rewrites. And of course teachers grouse that texting and social media make their jobs impossible.
Statistics support the complaints. By one account, American businesses suffer $204 billion in lost productivity every year because of poor writing. Businesses and colleges must run remedial courses on writing. But writing programs—in schools and companies—usually make little difference. Less than half of the 2,300 students tracked in a four-year study said their writing had improved in college.
To the rescue comes Steven Pinker, the rock-star language maven from Harvard. Pinker is celebrated for his friendly and lucid style. The subtext of his writing might be: Here, let me translate what those eggheads are saying—and how you should think about these academic debates. So he would seem to be the ideal person to offer a thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. And that is just what he sets out to do in The Sense of Style, which he sees as a successor to Strunk and White’s classic but outdated Elements of Style.
A definitive writing manual seems the next logical step for Pinker’s work. After writing two scholarly tomes early in his career, he has become a popularizer of intellectual ideas. In The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate, and How the Mind Works, Pinker offers erudite tours of the mysteries of thinking and acting. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, he argues that the world is becoming a safer, less violent place. In the ongoing debate about evolution, Pinker argues that all kinds of abilities—including family feelings, sharing, aggression, ethnocentrism, morality, spatial orientation, logic, probability, and even understandings of physics, biology, and psychology—are built into our DNA.
Surely, all of these innate abilities could be used to help people write well. Writing is, above all, an act of sharing and storytelling, those distinctively human activities.
Alas, Pinker fails. His guide is a mess. The best part of the book explores “classic style,” in which the writer “orients the reader’s gaze,” pointing out interesting or important things in a conversational style. But Pinker gets lost in a maze of academic exercises and random prescriptions. For 62 pages Pinker expounds on abstract models for analyzing writing. For 117 pages, he renders judgment on a random assortment of quarrels on word usage. Very seldom does Pinker actually explain how to build a piece of good writing, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph.