Lessons from a Linguist, Part 1: Steven Pinker on Reverse Engineering

write anywhere-01 copyWhen I’m not teaching students how to write science fiction, or giving workshops on writing craft or marketing, I am teaching design engineers how to write clearly and convincingly. As Communications Instructor at the University of Toronto in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, I help young engineers navigate the dark and churning waters of fluent and meaningful English.

So, when fellow Montrealer, Steven Pinker starts Chapter 1 of his book The Sense of Style, talking about “reverse engineering”—one of the key features in the design engineering toolkit—I perk up.

Good writing, says Pinker, begins with “reverse-engineering good prose as the key to developing a writerly ear.”

I’d recently picked up Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century after I watched several of his videos on language, and communicating science and technology.

Pinker starts Chapter 1 of the book with this quote from Oscar Wilde: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” When Pinker asked several accomplished writers about which style manuals they had consulted early in their careers, the most common answer he got was “none”. Writing, they said, just came naturally to them.

“I’d be the last to doubt that good writers are blessed with an innate dose of fluency with syntax and memory for words,” says Pinker. “But no one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the writing of other writers.”

Which is why successful authors like Neil Gaimen tell aspiring writers to “read a lot.” Read the best authors. The classics. Authors in your genre; authors of other genres. Authors of other cultures and time periods. Read. Read. Read. My previous article on reading fiction is particularly germane here.

The first thing you need to do is develop a writer’s ear. “Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose,” says Pinker. He goes on to demonstrate this in his book Sense of Style by deconstructing several examples of good prose and providing great lessons on what great prose looks like and why.

So, why do we need style guides at all, then? Particularly given that, in Pinker’s own admission, “much advice on style is stern and censorious,” and a writer needn’t approach learning the craft like a treacherous obstacle course to be suffered and endured. Mastering the craft of writing is a lifelong pursuit and ultimately best approached with the passion that hopefully drives the writer to express. “Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice,” says Pinker, “it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.”

Pinker adds, rather pithily, that, “The classic manuals written by starchy Englishmen and rock-ribbed Yankees, try to take all the fun out of writing, grimly adjuring the writer to avoid offbeat words, figures of speech, and playful alliteration. A famous piece of advice from this school crosses the line from the grim to the infanticidal: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”

Many style manuals, Pinker admits, “treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation.” Language, he says, evolves and is meant to evolve over time. He adds that, “the graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens come not just from an under-appreciation of the fact of language change but from a lack of reflection on their own psychology. As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days. And so every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it.”

So, why use a style guide if you’re reading a lot and taking in the best from the best? While Pinker no doubt sprinkles many reasons throughout his style manual (I haven’t finished reading it), here are two of mine:

  1. Once you are on that path toward writing the very best you can, a style guide can help you improve your writing faster by helping you understand why you like a particular “style” used by a favorite master writer and how it is applied. Simply liking isn’t enough; it’s the first step. Mastering it and using it in your own voice only comes with understanding it. I, for one, learn and retain better when I understand why something works for me. My ability to apply that “style” correctly increases markedly when I understand the rules associated with it (whether that particular “style” was in fact following or breaking a particular rule).
  2. The style guide also helps the novice writer ultimately find their own voice, and move out from the shadow of their beloved master and their techniques. It does this by providing a toolkit that applies can then apply objectively to any voice, making it easier for a writer to discover her own unique voice.

 

Of course, there are—as Pinker already pointed out—style guides and STYLE GUIDES. I’ve included a list below of a few I like to use and why.

 

The Chicago Manual of Style. 2010. 16th Ed. University of Chicago Press.1026pp: a comprehensive, easily navigated style guide that is relevant, current and clearly presented, with examples and discussions on a wide range of writing from essays, to fiction. A go-to “bible” for writers and editors.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. 1918. Elements of Style. Harcourt. 52pp:Even though it’s really OLD, and contains some outmoded notions and prescriptions, this manual is entertaining, smart and still very relevant in many cases. Compared with the Chicago Manual of Style, it’s pint-sized and therefore highly mobile.

Pinker, Steven. 2014. The Sense of Style. Viking. 359pp: called “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century, it is full of excellent advice, written with a engaging flare and with relevant examples, that speak to process. Read it more for narrative rather than reference.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire. 264pp: FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webnot just because it’s MY book, but because it’s FUN and contains the advice of over thirty experts in the craft of writing, including style and grammar. It’s easy to read and easy to learn with relevant examples and exercises. This book is more of a writing-storytelling guide than strictly a style guide.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

2 thoughts on “Lessons from a Linguist, Part 1: Steven Pinker on Reverse Engineering

  1. Pingback: Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the interwebz, Feb 8-14, 2015 | Writerly Goodness

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