On Good Writing
Why is most writing so bad? All you need to do is pick up any legal contract, academic article, or instructions for operating technical device to see an example of bad writing. It’s literally everywhere!
A few days ago I tuned into a discussion between Steven Pinker and Ian McEwan, two phenomenal thinkers and scholars. I include a short note about each below. The discussion was so captivating and filled with morsels, I listened to it again, this time with the aim to capture the high points and share with you.
Pinker opened with the question I posit above and came up with three hypotheses:
- Bad writing is a deliberate choice to confuse the reader, or to cover up lack of substance. But there are people who have great things to say but still their writing sucks, so maybe there is another reason?
- Perhaps we should blame digital media that’s forcing us to communicate in 140 characters and speak in abbreviations? But then, we don’t have enough evidence to substantiate that point.
- Final conclusion: Bad writing has noting to do with an era, it’s always been with us, since the invention of the printing press.
So how could we remedy this malady? What are some of the techniques we can incorporate in our writing to make it better? Below are the few things I learned from the lecture, adding some of my own commentary and interpretation.
- Immerse yourself in the world of edited prose. Lingering over examples of good writing and trying to reverse-engineer them to find out just why we liked a piece we just consumed is extremely effective and had worked for many a good penman. Thus, massive exposure is key. Random snippet: English language has about half a million words (and probably about the same number of idioms) and any good writer knows about one hundred thousand. So consume good prose, compared with studying manuals, it’s a pleasant way to acquire the craft.
- Adopt the right act of pretense. In other words, put yourself in the shoes of a reader. They do not know what you know. Keep it simple and stray from abstractions. Show, don’t tell. Use the words to from images, rather than telling or judging per se. For example, don’t write ‘car pulled up to a shabby house.’ Instead try ‘car pulled up to a house that looked half a century old and abandoned: peeling paint, rusty fence, a cracked window.’ You get the idea. Let the reader make the judgment that the house was shabby. Also, it is much more effective to relieve the reader from trying to guess what it is you are describing, by being concrete. Orient the reader with conversation, so that they can discover the world you are building and enjoy the process. Don’t tell them what to think. Guide them with imagery, so that they may participate in the process.
- Build contextual coherence. Craft a sentence not at the level of the preceding or following sentence, but rather at the level of the entire paragraph or a sequence of paragraphs, to avoid disjointed narrative and choppiness. In other words, sequence sentences so that the effect is that one is flowing out of the other, seamlessly. One way to do this is to introduce a concept/scene at a high level and then peel the onion, one layer at a time, revealing a gem inside.
- Match your language and style to the one your readers are familiar with. Since there is no governing body on the proper use of language, don’t sweat it too much, because there are million ways to do it. Adopt the general rules that apply to your audience by being sensitive to their expectations. You get to understand what they want by reading the kinds of narrative they enjoy and learning to emulate it and blend it with your own unique style. It pays to keep it simple and relatively painless by coming back to point one — literary immersion in the types of books you want to write.
- Adopt rules of style to help the readers enjoy the process. One of such rules that sparked my interest is putting the ‘heavy stuff’ at the end of a sentence. The reason this is a good idea is because when humans read, our memory is getting taxed. By not having to remember the important bits early on, as we work through the prose, our experience is more pleasant, because the deciphering of the meaning of that sentence is left for the end. Using a good meter (rhythm) is another good rule to adopt, which when coupled with putting the heavy stuff last, eases the readers’ mind. When a writer shows that degree of consideration, the reader’s pleasure and comprehension naturally increase and the writing becomes ‘good.’
Pinker spoke partly tongue-in-cheek about the use of commas to split infinities, adjuncts, dangling modifiers and nuanced usage of words, which changes all the time, by the way. For those with insatiable appetite for such fine distinctions and controversies, I include a link to the live presentation HERE, which is quite phenomenal and entertaining.
Enjoy, and let me know whether this post was helpful to you!
A quick note on the presenters: Steven Pinker is a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author of sixteen books, including the acclaimed and heavily researched tome “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2011). Ian McEwan is an English novelist and screenwriter. In 2008, The Times featured him on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.” He is the author of the highly awarded “Atonement” (2002).