Beyond Soggy Prose: A Review of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style

By Rachael Cayley, University of Toronto

 Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin.

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style offers a compelling and enjoyable account of how to craft strong prose. He begins by describing what goes on in good writing before lamenting its rarity. For Pinker, writing is often undermined by the attributes of what he calls “soggy prose”: “metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologizing, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives” (p. 55). In his view, we can resist these bad habits by reconceptualizing writing as the task of describing the world in a way that anticipates the needs of an interested audience. Our frequent inability to give our readers the lucid and coherent writing that they need is explained by his discussion of the curse of knowledge. Instead of simply vilifying weak writers, Pinker offers a convincing explanation of how difficult it is to get beyond what we ourselves know in order to convey it to a reader. The curse of knowledge must be counteracted, he tells us, by an ongoing attempt to understand the radical difference between the way we construct ideas in our own minds and the way we should construct texts for other minds.

Once this broad vision of effective writing is in place, Pinker turns his attention to three concrete ways to improve writing: better sentences, better flow, and better understanding of usage. In his chapter on sentences, he offers an impressively detailed account of how we construct sentences and how we might do so better. This understanding of sentence structure prepares us for his equally impressive chapter on coherence. His discussion of arcs of coherence, as he calls them, gives us a logical and sensitive account of the ways in which we juxtapose information in our writing.

Finally, he recognizes that our ability to put his advice into practice may be affected by our ongoing puzzlement over usage. He begins his long chapter on usage by moving beyond the stale debate between prescriptivism and descriptivism to a better understanding of the true nature of writing conventions. He then provides insight into one hundred instances in which we often need to make informed decisions about usage—and may wish to do so without relying on editorial-page cranks or half-remembered edicts from high school. His blending of opinion and evidence makes his advice both convincing and entertaining. The inclusion of a great many classic cartoons about writing just adds to the fun.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the mechanics of strong writing. Pinker’s perceptive and pragmatic discussion of the choices that we make in writing could improve one’s own writing as well as one’s ability to teach writing to others. My only reservation about this book concerns its tone: Pinker is clearly addressing writers that he believes should know better than to write turgid and inaccessible prose. However, treating weak writers as a monolithic group—without paying much attention to the challenges of learning to write or to the variation among different types of writing—carries a certain risk. His easy dismissal of the attributes of soggy writing fails to consider the way that those attributes function differently for novice writers and for different types of writing. This quibble is small but worth mentioning given the overall value of his sensible and apt advice. I hope that anyone who might be put off by the whiff of condescension in the opening chapters will stick around for the intelligent treatment of writing that occupies the bulk of this worthy book.

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