11 Quotes from Steven Pinker’s “A Sense of Style”

71vuG05f13LI recently read Steven Pinker’s latest work, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Viking, 2014). I loved this book, especially the first two thirds. The last third reads more like a reference book and it is tedious at times with an abundance of examples, but overall its helpful.

(A related book I recommend is Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation [W. W. Norton & Company, 2007].)

That said, here are eleven of my favorite quotes, mostly from the first two thirds of the book:

Style . . . adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, interesting metaphor, a witty aside, and elegant turn a phrase or among lives greatest pleasures. (9)

Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. (12)

Readers who want to become writers should read with the dictionary and at hand . . . And writers should not hesitate to send the readers there if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again.  . . . I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice that I once read any bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of the room with Vice-Grip pliers: “Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool.” (23)

The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate. (28)

The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. (29)

Classic prose is a pleasant illusion, like losing yourself in a play. The writer must work to keep the impression that his prose is a window onto the scene rather than just a mess of words. Like an actor with a wooden delivery, a writer who relies on canned verbal formulas will break the spell. This is the kind of writer who gets the ball rolling in his search for the holy grail, but finds that it’s neither a magic bullet nor a slam dunk, so he rolls with the punches and lets the chips fall where they may while seeing the glass as half-full, which is easier said than done. Avoid clichés like the plague — it’s a no-brainer. (45-46)

[G]ood writers reach for fresh similes and metaphors that keep the reader’s sensory cortexes is lit up. (48)

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose…. Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person you know spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your readers. (61, 76)

The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. The advice in this and other stylebooks is not so much on how to write as on how to revise. (76)

There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version one’s notes. (186)

… [T]he reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world. (304)

Make sure to pick up a copy of the book.


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