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Steven Pinker Tells us Why our Professional Writing Sucks (And What to Do)

Harvard’s cognitive psychology giant Steven Pinker has had no shortage of big, interesting topics to write about so far.

Starting in 1994 with his first book aimed at popular audiences, The Language Instinct, Pinker has discussed not only the origins of language, but the nature of human beings, the nature of our minds, the nature of human violence, and a host of related topics.

His most recent book The Sense of Style narrows in on how to write well, but continues to showcase his brilliant synthetical mind. It’s a 21st century version of Strunk & White, a book aimed to help us understand why our writing often sucks, and how we might make it suck a little less.

His deep background in linguistics and cognitive psychology allows him to discuss language and writing more deeply than your average style guide; it’s also funny as hell in parts, which can’t be said of nearly any style guide.

senseofstyle

Please No More “Ese”

In the third chapter, Pinker addresses the familiar problem of academese, legalese, professionalese…all the eses that make one want to throw a book, paper, or article in the trash rather than finish it. What causes them? Is it because we seek to obfuscate, as is commonly thought? Sometimes yes — especially when the author is trying to sell the reader something, be it a product or an idea.

But Pinker’s not convinced that concealment is driving most of our frustration with professional writing:

I have long been skeptical of the bamboozlement theory, because in my experience it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do groundbreaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas, and are honest, down-to-earth people, the kind you’d enjoy having a beer with. Still, their writing stinks.

So, if it’s not that we’re trying to mislead, what’s the problem?

***

Pinker first calls attention to the Curse of Knowledge — the inability to put ourselves in the shoes of a less informed reader.

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows — that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

The first, simple, way this manifests itself is one we all encounter too frequently: Over-Abbreviation. It’s when we’re told to look up the date of the SALT conference for MLA sourcing on the HELMET system after our STEM meeting. (I only made one of those up.) Pinker’s easy way out is to recommend we always spell out acronyms the first time we use them, unless we’re absolutely sure readers will know what they mean. (And still maybe even then.)

The second obvious manifestation is our overuse of technical terms which the reader may or may not have encountered before. A simple fix is to add a few words of expository the first time you use the term, as in “Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant.” Don’t assume the reader knows all of your jargon.

In addition, the use of examples is so powerful that we might call them a necessary component of persuasive writing. If I give you a long rhetorical argument in favor of some action or another without anchoring it on a concrete example, it’s as if I haven’t explained it at all. Something like: “Reading a source of information that contradicts your existing beliefs is a useful practice, as in the case of a Democrat spending time reading Op-Eds written by Republicans.” The example makes the point far stronger.

Another deeper part of the problem is a little less obvious but a lot more interesting than you might think. Pinker ascribes a big source of messy writing to a mental process called chunking, in which we package groups of concepts into ever further abstraction in order to save space in our brain. Here’s a great example of chunking:

As children we see one person hand a cookie to another, and we remember it as an act of giving. One person gives another one a cookie in exchange for a banana; we chunk the two acts of giving together and think of the sequence as trading. Person 1 trades a banana to Person 2 for a shiny piece of metal, because he knows he can trade it to Person 3 for a cookie; we think of it as selling. Lots of people buying and selling make up a market. Activity aggregated over many markets get chunked into the economy. The economy can now be thought of as an entity which responds to action by central banks; we call that monetary policy. One kind of monetary policy, which involves the central bank buying private assets, is chunked as quantitative easing.

As we read and learn, we master a vast number of these abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit which we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name.

Chunking is an amazing and useful component of higher intelligence, but it gets us in trouble when we write because we assume our readers’ chunks are just like our own. They’re not.

A second issue is something he terms functional fixity. This compounds the problem induced by chunking:

Sometimes wording is maddeningly opaque without being composed of technical terminology from a private clique. Even among cognitive scientists, a “poststimulus event” is not a standard way way to refer to a tap on the arm. A financial customer might be reasonably familiar with the world of investments and still have to puzzle over what a company brochure means by “capital charges and rights.” A computer-savvy user trying to maintain his Web site might be mystified by instructions on the maintenance page which refer to “nodes,” “content type” and “attachments.” And heaven help the sleepy traveler trying to set the alarm clock in his hotel room who must interpret “alarm function” and “second display mode.”

Why do writers invent such confusing terminology? I believe the answer lies in another way in which expertise can make our thoughts more idiosyncratic and thus harder to share: as we become familiar with something, we think about it more in terms of the use we put it to and less in terms of what it looks like and what it is made of. This transition, another staple of the cognitive psychology curriculum, is called functional fixity (sometimes functional fixedness).

The opposite of functional fixity would be familiar to those who have bought their dog or cat a toy only to be puzzled to see them playing with the packaging it came in. The animal hasn’t fixated on the function of the objects, to him an object is just an object. The toy and the packaging are not categorized as toy and thing toy comes in the way they are for us. In this case, we have functional fixity and they do not.

And so Pinker continues:

Now, if you combine functional fixity with chunking, and stir in the curse that hides each one from our awareness, you get an explanation of why specialists use so much idiosyncratic terminology, together with abstractions, metaconcepts, and zombie nouns. They are not trying to bamboozle us, that’s just the way they think.

[…]

In a similar way, writers stop thinking — and thus stop writing — about tangible objects and instead refer to them by the role those objects play in their daily travails. Recall the example from chapter 2 in which a psychologist showed people sentences, followed by the label TRUE or FALSE. He explained what he did as “the subsequent presentation of an assessment word,” referring to the [true/false] label as an “assessment word” because that’s why he put it there — so that the participants in the experiment could assess whether it applied to the preceding sentence Unfortunately, he left it up to us to figure out what an “assessment word” is–while saving no characters, and being less rather than more scientifically precise.

In the same way, a tap on the wrist became a “stimulus” and a [subsequent] tap on the elbow become a “post-stimulus event,” because the writer cared about the fact that one event came after the other and no longer cared about the fact that the events were taps on the arm.

As we get deeper into our expertise, we substitute concrete, useful, everyday imagery for abstract, technical fluff that brings nothing to the mind’s eye of a lay reader. We use metaconcepts like levels, issues, contexts, frameworks, and perspectives instead of describing the actual thing in plain language. (Thus does a book become a “tangible thinking framework.”)

Solutions

How do we solve the problem, then? Pinker partially defuses the obvious solution — remembering the reader over your shoulder while you write — because he feels it doesn’t always work. Even when we’re made aware that we need to simplify and clarify for our audience, we find it hard to regress our minds to a time when our professional knowledge was more primitive.

Pinker’s prescription has a few parts:

  1. Get rid of abstractions and use concrete nouns and refer to concrete things. Who did what to whom? Read over your sentences and look for nouns that refer to meta-abstractions and ask yourself whether there’s a way to put a tangible, everyday object or concept in its place. “The phrase ‘on the aspirational level’ adds nothing to ‘aspire,’ nor is a ‘prejudice reduction model’ any more sophisticated than ‘reducing prejudice.'”
  2. When in doubt, assume the reader knows a fair bit less than you about your topic. Clarity is not condescension. You don’t need to prove how smart you are — the reader won’t be impressed. “The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.” 
  3. Get someone intelligent and part of your intended audience to read over your work and see if they understand it. You shouldn’t take every last suggestion, but do take seriously when they tell you certain sections are muddy or confusing. “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by the reader.”
  4. Put your first draft down for enough time that, when you come back to it, you no longer feel deep familiarity with it. In this way, you become your intended audience. Your own fresh eyes will see the text in a new way. Don’t forget to read aloud, even if just under your breath.

Still interested? Check out Pinker’s The Sense of Style for a lot more on good writing, and check out his thoughts on what a broad education should entail.