Book reflection: the sense of style – by Steven Pinker

I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science.Steven Pinker

In between all of the reading I have to do for my Ph.D., I intentionally read something a bit more literary. I find that after long bouts of reading academic pieces and re-writing thesis drafts renders me a bit stuck in my writing. I understandably become too bogged down with the data, that I forget that I actually have to be able to effectively communicate my data. My writing becomes robotic and boring, which doesn’t really help in getting people to care about my research or at least get anyone interested in it.

Recently, I turned to Steven Pinker for some inspiration. He is an award-winning cognitive scientist, but more importantly, an effective science communicator. The secondary title for this book is, The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. Most style manuals read more like textbooks. This one was witty but at the same time provided so much of the language essentials I needed to reboot my tired writing. Below are some of my favourite quotes from his book.

  • The effective use of words to engage the human mind.
  • The authors also share an attitude: they do not hide the passion and relish that drive them to tell us about their subjects. They write as if they have something important to say. But no, that doesn’t capture it. They write as if they have something important to show. And that, we shall see, is a key ingredient in the sense of style.
  • The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity.
  • That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals.
  • It takes cognitive effort to build and maintain all those invisible branches, and it’s easy for reader and writer alike to backslide into treating a sentence as just one damn word after another.

Now, isn’t this the timely reminder I needed to hear about my writing? It’s true that not many people will be reading your doctoral thesis outside of your examiners and supervisors. Still, publishing your work or communicating your findings through social media should be more than just reaching a certain altmetric score. Essentially, my work should be engaging others. ‘Engage the human mind.’ I keep reminding myself that as much as it’s important to demonstrate the scientific rigour, I need to do so effectively.

Tagged in What messes with your head, phd, writing, Student life