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is just what he sets out to do in The Sense of Style, which he sees as a successor to Strunk and White’s classic but outdated Elements of Style.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.
The manual we need
A truly useful manual would begin with the two essential elements of writing—the sentence and the paragraph. Hemingway once noted that “one true sentence” was the foundation of all good writing. The good news is that anyone, with the right basic skills, can write that one true sentence—and then a second, a third, and so on.
So where is Pinker’s advice on composing a sentence? Nowhere and everywhere. Pinker jumps from topic to topic—from the minutiae of grammar to disagreements over word meanings—but he never shows how to assemble a sentence from the ground up. When he explores the way sentences get tangled, you have no real foundation for the discussion. It’s as if someone described the infield fly rule in baseball without first explaining that pitchers throw, hitters swing, and fielders catch.
Maybe Pinker finds the basics too, well, basic. Maybe he doesn’t want to dwell on the simple subject-predicate structure because, well, it's just so obvious. But until we master these basics, we can’t understand more complicated structures—how to build complex and complicated sentences, how modifiers work, how to identify subjects, how to connect ideas, and when to break otherwise sensible rules. Since we lack that basic point of reference, Pinker’s more esoteric explorations often get lost in the shuffle.
What about paragraphs? Forget it. “Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to build a paragraph,” Pinker says. “But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph.” It’s true that people disagree over when to hit the return key to begin a new block of text. It’s also true, as Pinker says, that the paragraph offers “a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause.” It’s also true, if you want to understand writing with Pinker’s tree analogy, that paragraph breaks “generally coincide with the divisions between branches in the discourse tree.”
But that’s a copout. We can do better. Try this working definition: A paragraph is the statement and development of a single idea.
All too often, when we first begin writing a passage, as Pinker notes, our thoughts spill out, one after another. One thought leads to another. We begin with one thought and then, without developing it, jump to another thought. And so paragraphs become jumbles of thoughts, some developed and some not. After a while, we hit the return key. We think we have written a paragraph just because we have created, as Pinker says, a brief pause.
To avoid catch-all paragraphs, consider the concept of the "idea bucket." Every paragraph is a bucket; every bucket contains just one idea, along with whatever ideas are needed to develop that idea. Each paragraph can stand alone. To make sure you express and develop just one idea in each paragraph, label each idea. If a paragraph contains two ideas, break it up in to two paragraphs—or get rid of the extra idea if it’s not germane to the piece.
Of course, how deeply you develop those ideas-cum-paragraphs—how specific the paragraph’s idea, how extensively you develop it—depends on the context. Pinker develops the idea of synaptic firing in his popular works differently than one of his colleagues does in a piece of basic research. A journalist will consider it differently still, as will Jon Stewart or a doctor speaking to a patient. The context tells you just how to break up topic into ideas/paragraphs and how extensively to develop them, paragraph by paragraph.
When you look at strong writers over the past century—Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Gay Talese, Elizabeth Gilbert, Laura Hillenbrand—you see that they follow the one-idea rule. Each paragraph is a mini-essay, a complete expression of an idea, which follows the previous idea and sets up the next.
A piece of writing, then, is a string of buckets. When you label all the ideas/paragraphs, you see instantly how well the ideas march from the beginning to the end of the piece. As a general rule, one idea should lead to the next. You can take digressions; sometimes digressions offer important insight. But somehow you need to get back on the main road. Idea labeling helps to do just that.
Sadly, Steven Pinker is so engaged in the "deep structure" of writing and the minutiae of rules that he fails to create a usable guide for these basic elements of writing. He also fails to explain the range of structures for stories, essays, arguments, explanations, and so on.
How does Pinker fail so badly? Quite simply, he falls victim to the "curse of knowledge" that he describes in the book’s second chapter. Immersed for decades in academic writings on neurology, evolution, and linguistics, Pinker takes simple questions and turns them into complex academic meanderings. Few if any writers—students, business people, journalists, or even academics—will get clear direction from Pinker about turning their muddy writing into clear, vivid prose.
Let’s zoom in on Pinker’s fatal mistake. It’s useful to begin, Pinker says, by examining the hidden structure of writing. He uses three models.
• The web: a collection of ideas, some related and some not, arranged along nodes.
• The tree: ideas arranged in hierarchies, where big limbs hold smaller limbs in support of a single trunk of an idea.
• The string: ideas that move in a clear sequence, one idea leading to the next.
Now consider the following sentence: “The bridge to the islands are crowded.” Can you spot the error? It’s simple, really. Since “bridge” is the subject, the verb should be the singular “is,” not the plural “are.” Alas, since the verb follows “the islands,” too many writers make the verb plural.
A good English teacher would help students to find the right verb form by distinguishing the subject from the modifier. One common form of modifier is the prepositional phrase—in this case, “to the islands.” When you write sentences with some complexity, you need to put mental brackets around the words that add detail to the passage. Like this:
The bridge [to the islands] is crowded.
By bracketing the subject’s modifier—the prepositional phrase “to the islands”—you can see the core structure: “The bridge is crowded.”
So how does Pinker suggest spotting the problem? Let’s use a tree, Pinker says. Like many language mavens, Pinker wants us to visualize all the elements of speech. Old-timers, of course, swear by the exercise of diagramming sentences. Stephen King, in his days as a teacher, occasionally asked his students to diagram sentences as homework assignments. “This is for fun,” he told them, “like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” He never graded the assignments. The point was to make learning playful.
To analyze the sentence “The bridge to the islands is crowded,” Pinker offers a diagram that looks like strands of spaghetti (some cooked, some raw) thrown together. It’s a sight to behold: curved and straight lines, arrows, ovals, a triangle, with some (but not all) of the words in the sentence under study. I’ve shown the image to friends and colleagues and they shake their head. “Above my pay grade,” one said. Maybe, at some deep level, Pinker’s graphic makes sense. But as a tool for explaining the basic structure of a sentence, it fails. Get me a rewrite.
Maybe, for the sheer purpose of play, Pinker’s tree diagrams might offer some value. We might, in the spirit of Stephen King’s homework, plot out sentences with these tangled lines and curves to explore how the parts of speech work. But must we make matters so complicated? Why not start with simple structures—like subject-predicate—and then explore their common variations? Pinker's contraptions, alas, make it harder, not easier, to grasp simple principles.
Got it? Most people won’t, at least quickly. And, I’m sorry to say, Pinker’s exercises are not fun. Pinker’s illustrations resemble the user manuals for Ikea. They make perfect sense to someone who already “gets” the problem but just confuse the rest of us who seek a simple approach.
As a linguistic play structure, I suppose, Pinker’s tree diagrams might offer some value. We might, in the spirit of Stephen King’s homework, plot out sentences with these tangled lines and curves to explore how the parts of speech work. But must we make matters so complicated? Why not start with simple structures—like subject-predicate—and then explore their common variations? Pinker's contraptions, alas, make it harder, not easier, to grasp simple principles.
Let’s take another example—Pinker’s concept of “the gap.” Look at the following sentence:
The impact, which theories of economics predict are bound to be felt sooner or later, could be enormous.
Do you see the problem? Of course: the verb “are” should be “is,” since it refers to the singular noun “The impact.” The modifier here—"which theories of economics predict are bound to be felt sooner or later”—is helpfully set off with commas.
To get this passage right, Pinker suggests inserting a “gap” into the middle of the sentence, like this:
The impact, which theories of economics predict ____ are bound to be felt sooner or later, could be enormous.
Pinker instructs us to plug “the impact” into the blank, then read the phrase that begins with that gap. Should the verb be “is” or “are”? Obviously, it’s the singular: “The impact is bound to be felt.”
Rube Goldberg would be proud of this scheme. So it goes with Pinker’s guide to writing. Rather than focusing on simple structures, Pinker begins with complicated structures. Then he constructs a complicated edifices to examine them. Often, he doesn’t explain as much as just tell us what’s better.
Strangely, Pinker never offers a step-by-step process for writing from scratch. In this book, the only real instruction he offers is rewriting awkward passages. When he rewrites, he usually maintains the basic structure of the passage. But why? So often, two shorter sentences work better than one long sentence. But Pinker pays no attention. He wants to play with something complex, not create something new by starting simply.
Perhaps the book’s biggest problem here comes from Pinker’s aversion to signposts. A signpost is any device that orients the reader. The most obvious signpost is the transition, which alerts the writer to a shift in focus: "Let’s begin…,” “As we have seen…,” and so on. Writers also use signposts to map the road ahead, like this: “This chapter discusses the factors that cause names to rise and fall in popularity.” As Pinker notes, that one lacks pizzazz. We can do better, for sure. But the writer’s primary job is to orient the reader. Some kind of map is usually essential.
Pinker would have benefited from another kind of signpost—the use of boldface headers to break up long stretches of text into sections. At times, it’s hard to keep track of just what Pinker is discussing or how it fits larger themes. In his chapter about “classic style,” for example he jumps from one technique to another: similes, metaphors, showing, analogy, narrative, metadiscourse, signposting, questions, asides, voice, hedging, intensifiers, just to mention a dozen. You need to hunt for these ideas, though. In the end, Pinker’s guide is no guide at all.
Signposting, ultimately, reveals the underlying outline of a piece. Pinker’s work would benefit from such a breakdown. Had he broken chapters into clearer sections and subsections, he would have seen just how rambling his prose can be. And he could have reorganized his thoughts into one of the many structures that storytellers and writers have used for millennia.
Aristotle outlined the basic structure of stories 2,500 years ago in The Poetics. Drama, Aristotle shows, has three basic parts—beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, we meet the principal characters and the world where they live. In the middle, we see the hero and other characters respond to a challenge—first resisting, then confronting increasingly difficult aspects of that challenge. At the end, we see change—in Aristotle’s terms, recognition and reversal—and resolution. Ariostotle called this structure the narrative arc.
That same three-part structure works for less narrative essays, analyses, explanations, and arguments. Start with a problem, break it down into pieces, then tie all the pieces together.
Of course, writers should not limit themselves to this narrative structure. Sometimes a straight chronology or sequence works best. Lots of authors like triangles, where we can see the interplay of three key characters or ideas. In theology school, Martin Luther King learned a set of formats for sermons—the fireworks, the stair-step, the diamond cut, and more.
Pinker never offers these basic techniques—nor does his own work model any of them. His entire book resembles nothing more than a star professor’s guest lecture. He riffs on topics, offering insight and wit, with an engaging and urbane persona. But he does not tell us what we need to do.
To nitpick or not to nitpick?
Pinker seems happiest when sorting the do’s and don’ts of grammar. He is, after all, the chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He revels in the endless debates about etymology, slang, context, neologisms, and anachronisms.
Pinker amiably dismisses the concerns of Chicken Little stylists. Language, he explains, evolves. Different circumstances stretch, bend, and even break the meanings of words. We need to adapt old words to new circumstances and invent new expressions. Pinker scolds the stylists who scold others for using words like “contact,” which actually serves its purpose elegantly. He also takes on the purists who insist on original definitions for words like “decimate,” which people now user to say “destroy most of” rather than “reduce by one tenth.” And he dismisses concerns about split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. He even comes to the defense of passages like “Me and Amanda went to the mall.” On that last point, Pinker explains that the Cambridge Grammar “allow[s] an accusative pronoun before and.” Of course.
Pinker wants language to breathe, grow, adapt—and sparkle. Good for him. We need to understand that rules of grammar and usage exist to serve us, not the other way round. We need to embrace rules that make it easier to express and understand ideas. Obviously, the more we can write logically and consistently—and rules help us to do just that—the better we will understand each other. But as Emerson observed, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” So we need to balance rules with practical concerns.
Pinker spends the biggest chunk of his book—117 out of 294 pages of text—rendering verdicts on dozens of disputes over usage. Often he provides a cogent explanation; often he doesn’t.
Pinker says we can “safely ignore” language purists on the following expressions: aggravate, anticipate, anxious, comprise, convince, crescendo, critique, decimate, due to, Frankenstein, graduate, healthy, hopefully, intrigue, livid, loans, masterful, momentarily, nauseous, presently, raise, transpire, while, and whose.
But for the following expressions, which he calls malaprops, Pinker asks us to hold fast to classical meanings: as far as, adverse, appraise, begs the question, bemused, cliché, compendious, credible, criteria, data, appreciate, economy, disinterested, enervate, enormity, flaunt, flounder, fortuitous, fulsome, hone, hot button, in turn, irregardless, ironic, literally, luxuriant, meretricious, mitigate, new age, noisome, nonplussed, opportunism, parameter, phenomena, politically correct, practicable, proscribe, protagonist, refute, reticent, simplistic, starch, tortuous, unexceptionable, untenable, urban legend, and verbal.
Each one of these expressions is debatable. I would decide on the basis of the logic of the rule, as applied to usage. I would disagree with Pinker, for example, on anxious. Its longtime meaning is worried and, to me anyway, the word still carries an edgy kind of anticipation. But Pinker and the AHD Usage Panel shrug and accept the growing use of the word to mean eager. I disagree, but Pinker is surely right that words’ meanings evolve.
Can writing be taught?
When asked to explain their secrets, writers often demur. “It is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer,” Stephen King said. “You can’t teach it,” Faulkner said. The argument goes like this: Like great actors or athletes or artists, the best writers read constantly and drive themselves to discover countless insights and tricks. Writers learn through their own unique processes of trial and error. They cannot always pass their wisdom on to other writers.
Pinker agrees that real mastery can be hard and elusive. “Writing,” Pinker writes in The Sense of Style, “is an unnatural act.” He quotes Darwin: “Man has an instinctive tendency to talk, as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.”
But this claim that writing is unnatural seems odd, coming from Pinker. In his landmark book The Language Instinct, after all, Pinker claims that language is inherent to humans—an evolutionary adaptation, like opposable thumbs or binocular vision, etched into our genes. We learn to use language from our earliest moments on the earth; we babble, coo, play, test, adjust, imitate, and break apart and combine words, with almost no effort. Language is the ultimate social act, a process of sharing that engages every part of our being.
Later, in The Blank Slate, Pinker adds a long list of abilities pre-loaded into humans—including family feelings, sharing and reciprocity, aggression, ethnocentrism, morality, spatial orientation, logic, probability, and even understandings of physics, biology, and psychology.
But writing, Pinker says, is another matter altogether. Writing, he says, is "above all, an act of pretense.” It doesn’t happen; we need to make it happen. Every time we compose something, we struggle against our deep, hardwired needs and abilities. Sure, most people can learn how to write. Usually, though, it doesn’t happen easily or well. A few lucky souls develop a knack for writing, but the rest of us struggle to get the words right on paper.
Why is language so easy and writing so hard? In conversation, Pinker notes, we see how other people respond to our words. In conversation our partners respond right away to what we’re saying, so we can adjust. Even without a response, we can tell when someone’s bored, confused, angry, excited, hurt, and so on. Instantly, we can adjust to connect. Not so with writing. The audience is invisible, in another time and place. In that sense, writing is like shadow boxing. You never know if your actions will connect with your partner.
Here, I think, we have found Pinker’s fatal flaw.
It may be true that writing is not etched into our DNA. But language and storytelling, if not traceable to specific genes, are probably innate. Storytelling, after all, is the capacity that sets humans apart from other species. And storytelling offers the basic structure of all writing, from the simple sentence to the grand epic. If we’re smart, we can deploy our innate love and need for storytelling to master writing.
Every day, neurologists tell us, we have 50,000 or more (mostly trivial) thoughts. We think about when to get up, what to eat for breakfast, getting the kids to school, an aching knee, stalled traffic, spilled coffee, and so on. All day, our minds fill with thoughts—so persistently, in fact, that we need to train ourselves, through meditation and other techniques, to avoid getting hijacked by those thoughts. Now, something funny happens, automatically, with those thoughts. Instantly, we turn those thoughts into mini-narratives. Consider how one thought embodies Aristotle’s arc: beginning (here I am, lying in bed, just after the alarm sounded), middle (what do I need to do next?), and end (where will this lead me next?).
Here lies the trick, hidden in plain sight, for mastering writing. We need to find ways to transfer our natural ken for narrative into a more deliberate ability to write. Happily, that's not terribly difficult.
Years ago, I witnessed a group of four- to six-year olds sit at computers at an elementary school in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C. Participants in an experimental program called “Writing to Read,” these students composed brief pieces before they could even read. Filled with stories they wanted to share—about family and homes, friends and neighborhoods, school and sports, and more—they just sat down and typed. Freed from didactic do’s and don’ts, they showed me that virtually anyone can write if given a chance. Later, of course, these students would need to master the basics of grammar and style. But there’s plenty of time for that—and incentive—if you develop enthusiasm for writing in the first place.
More recently, I delivered a writing seminar to a room full of high school dropouts in Boston. At the beginning of our daylong session, I asked participants to write for five minutes about anything that came to their minds. One woman sat, utterly paralyzed. "What’s up?” I asked. “I just can’t do it,” she said. “Write anything,” I said. “Write about getting up, eating breakfast, taking the bus—anything. Don’t worry about grammar. Just get something on paper.” But she couldn’t put down a word. That day, we learned all kinds of storytelling skills. We developed a fictional character and then put that character into action. Using Aristotle’s arc, we created a story from nothing. Then we explored how the basic units of writing—sentences and paragraphs—had the same basic structure as stories. At the end of the day, I asked the students to write a new paragraph. The woman who was so paralyzed that morning wrote a complete, cogent paragraph. Proudly, she had mastered the rudiments of writing.
To write well, we just need to apply our natural gifts for storytelling to writing. When we can do that, writing becomes less of an insider’s game of rules and prescriptions and more a process of discovery and sharing. Once we get into the flow of writing, it’s easier to make sense of rules and prescriptions—the stuff of Pinker.
Steven Pinker is one of the true public intellectuals of our time. He writes with verve. Like an enthusiastic and erudite tour guide, he points out patterns and oddities that make the world fascinating. Right or wrong, he has given us invaluable glimpses into the debates about evolution, human nature, language, and human aggression. This time, though, he falters. Fascinated by the sights along his tour, he fails to show us the overall structure of the journey.