The Sense of Style | Steven Pinker

Summary of: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
By: Steven Pinker


Embark on a journey through the art of crafting captivating prose, as you explore the summary of ‘The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century’ by Steven Pinker. Discover the secret techniques utilized by revered authors like Richard Dawkins and Maurice Sendak in capturing readers’ imagination. Learn to adopt the timeless classic style, and avoid falling into the traps of vague language and overly complex concepts. Discover the importance of syntax, voice, coherence, and creating connections in your writing, all the while keeping your message clear and engaging.

Mastering Good Writing

Mastering good writing is not just about following grammar and punctuation. Accomplished writers enhance their writing skills through studying good prose, avoiding clichés and banalities, and using vivid imagery to make abstract ideas more concrete. The opening line of Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow is an excellent example of engaging prose that captures the reader’s attention from the start. Margalit Fox’s obituary writing demonstrates how one can neatly sum up a person’s legacy in 800 words or less. Regardless of genre, the goal of most literature is to leave a strong impression on readers.

The Power of Classic Writing Style

Classic writing style is the most efficient means of presenting complex information to readers in an understandable manner. This style aims to guide the reader to a clear understanding of the topic under discussion. Physicist Brian Greene presents an excellent example of classic style in his Newsweek writings, where he expertly explained the theory of the multiverse in a clear and concise manner. The classic style assumes writer and reader as equals, and writing clarity is maintained by avoiding unnecessary and analytical tendencies that often crop up in other styles. Well-presented classic texts make readers feel intelligent, while poor writing leaves them feeling lost and confused. Classic style presents information crisply and confidently without obscuring contentions with meaningless qualifications.

Writing for Everyone

The curse of knowledge leads writers to use incomprehensible language that can alienate their audience. Avoid technical vocabulary and abbreviations that only experts in a field will understand. Instead, opt for simpler language that communicates the same idea. If you must use technical terms, define them in context. Keep your writing concise and avoid pompous vocabulary that only muddles your point. Imagine a non-expert reader looking over your shoulder as you write, reminding you to simplify your language.

Mastering English Syntax

Syntax plays a significant role in making writing clearer and easier to understand. This is because sentences are built on codes that help writers create coherent and meaningful statements that conform to grammar rules. Syntax assists writers in spotting errors in their work, removing redundant or superfluous words, and clarifying confusing sentences. By mastering syntax, writers can enhance their writing skills and become more effective communicators.

Active vs. Passive Voice

The active voice and the passive voice are the two essential voices in the English language. The active voice is when the subject performs the action, while the passive voice is when the subject receives the action. While the passive voice is often frowned upon and can make a sentence wordier, it has its benefits. When used correctly, the passive voice can make a sentence more concise and help guide the reader’s attention. For example, it can be used to focus on the subject rather than the person observing it. So, a good writer or editor should know when to use the passive voice to make their writing more limpid and concise.

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