Steven Pinker on Writing

The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

That may sound obvious. But it’s amazing how many of the bad habits of academese and legalese and so on come from flouting that model. Bad writers don’t point to something in the world but are self-conscious about not seeming naïve about the pitfalls of their own enterprise. Their goal is not to show something to the reader but to prove that they are not a bad lawyer or a bad scientist or a bad academic. And so bad writing is cluttered with apologies and hedges and “somewhats” and reviews of the past activity of people in the same line of work as the writer, as opposed to concentrating on something in the world that the writer is trying to get someone else to see with their own eyes.

…Another bit of psychology that can make anyone a better writer is to be aware of a phenomenon sometimes called The Curse of Knowledge. It goes by many names, and many psychologists have rediscovered versions of it, including defective Theory of Mind, egocentrism, hindsight bias, and false consensus. They’re all versions of an infirmity afflicting every member of our species, namely that it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know something that you do know.

…We as writers often use technical terms, abbreviations, assumptions about typical experimental methods, assumptions about what questions we ask in our research, that our readers have no way of knowing because they haven’t been through the same training that we have. Overcoming the curse of knowledge may be the single most important requirement in becoming a clear writer.




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