‘The idea is to help readers discern something you know they’d be able to see, if only they were looking in the right place’

What’s the secret to writing well? As I’ve said previously here, an awful lot of people seem to think they know, yet their "rules for writers" are almost always (pardon the technical linguistics jargon) bullshit. For example, "Show, don’t tell" is frequently bad advice. In the right context, the passive voice is fine. Elmore Leonard’s most famous rule, "Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue", is sheer silliness. Even the sainted Orwell’s rules are a bit rubbish: the final one is, "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous", which means his advice is really just "Don’t write barbarically". So it doesn’t bode well that the psychologist Steven Pinker is to publish his own advice book, The Sense Of Style, later this year. Judging by a recent interview at edge.org, however, this one might be different. Writing, Pinker points out, is inherently a psychological phenomenon, "a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind". So one place to begin is with actual psychology.

The key thing to realise, Pinker argues, is that writing is "cognitively unnatural". For almost all human existence, nobody wrote anything; even after that, for millennia, only a tiny elite did so. And it remains an odd way to communicate. You can’t see your readers’ facial expressions. They can’t ask for clarification. Often, you don’t know who they are, or how much they know. How to make up for all this?

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