Vladimir Nabokov, who knew a thing or two about the subject, once wrote, “Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone. Being much more than all this, style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of the author’s personality.” I happened to run across this line while in the midst of reading The Sense of Style. Nabokov, I thought, had summed up the major part of what was missing from this otherwise laudable book.
Not that its author is lacking in personality. Steven Pinker has plenty, and a cheerful kind of intelligence, even about difficult questions, that wears well. His politics and associations are openly conceded as he quotes genuinely impressive passages from his favorite writers: first, the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins; next, Pinker’s own wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein; then, the physicist Brian Greene; later, Goldstein again. In another chapter, Pinker, who has written a book arguing that violence has been on a great downward swing in human history, finds many faults in a difficult passage in A History of Warfare by John Keegan.
If all this sounds a little too secular-humanist-triumphalist for you, at least consider another source from Pinker’s literary honor roll, one even more fundamental to his argument here: a great but not-very-well-known book called Clear and Simple as the Truth by the American scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. For the nonfiction writer who thinks seriously about his craft and finds the competing lists of do’s and don’ts in most guides to be inadequate, Clear and Simple is an excellent alternative, a book that can actually deepen your awareness of the basic assumptions behind any style of writing. It is not, however, a general guide to writing: Thomas and Turner are primarily concerned with “classic style,” the strikingly confident prose style developed by such French writers as Descartes, La Rochefoucauld, and Madame de Sévigné. Their book identifies its key premises, and elaborates further by a close examination of classic style in English, from the Declaration of Independence to the reportage of A. J. Liebling.
Pinker, to his credit, aims to popularize the key ideas of classic style, which he says can be applied as an antidote to academese, bureaucratese, and other subspecies of language marred by the distracting tendency to encode even ordinary phenomena in the language of the specialist. What is so unclassic about the prose of the postmodern academic, for example, is that such language revels in its own obscurity. It is aimed at fellow initiates in a belief system founded on suspicion.
Classic style, by contrast, is stylistically and philosophically optimistic. It takes as a given that truth exists and that we are all competent to recognize it. Classic prose—invariably described in visual metaphors, emphasizing presentation—is a window to truth. It becomes the writer’s job simply to direct the reader’s gaze in the appropriate direction, never dirtying the window-panes with distracting meta-commentary that belabors the writer’s own effort. Without footnotes, unnecessary hedging, or jargon, the classic writer says: Look, here it is.
Pinker transforms this into practical writing tips, such as: Keep the signposting—writing about what you’re going to write before you write about it—to a minimum. Another is to imagine your writing as a conversation—not that it should seem talky or especially casual, but rather modeled on an ideal of one-to-one directness. Pinker gives an apt side-by-side of two sentences. The unclassic sentence: “There is a significant positive correlation between measures of food intake and body mass index.” The rewrite: “The more you eat, the fatter you get.” One sounds like a book, the other like a human being with a point to make.
Where Pinker breaks ranks with most enemies of tendentious writing is on the question of motive. He cites Hanlon’s razor—“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”—and turns to cognitive science for explanations of why we are so bad at presenting our hard-earned knowledge to others. A major reason, he says, is that once we learn something, it is very hard for us to know what it is like not to know it. This “curse of knowledge” leads us to under-explain and rely on abbreviation, shorthand, and jargon, as we assume our readers know much more than they actually do.