Stephen Pinker is one of the foremost experts on the modern English language. Discover our top writing tips from Steven Pinker that you should consider.
Stephen Pinker is a well-known experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist who works for Harvard University. He regularly researches cognitive science and psychology, and this work has led him to dig deeply into linguistics. As he studied psycholinguistics, he began to research language acquisition in children.
As both a writer and psychologist, Pinker has won multiple awards. Time magazine called in one o the “100 Most Influential People in the World Today,” and Foreign Policy named him Humanist of the Year on their “100 Global Thinkers” list. He continues to advance research in linguistics, language, and human nature and is passionate about helping people become good writers. Writing tips for beginners can be helpful if you’re starting out.
Pinker is an author with multiple books to his name, including several that have to do with language and thought. One of his most famous books is The Sense of Style. This book is a language-oriented style guide for the modern writer. Because of his work both for Harvard University and in writing this book, Pinker has many tips for writers.
1. Write in a Visual Way
Steven Pinker encourages writers to use visual language in their writing. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he says, “We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space.” Based on this information, he encourages writers to use concrete words that form visual effects to tap into this aspect of human nature.
How does this look in your writing? First, make sure you are using nouns that people can visualize. Concrete nouns versus vague nouns will help your writing be more powerful. Then, use powerful action verbs when possible. After addressing nouns and verbs, use words that appeal to the senses. Words describing sounds, smells, and textures can help the writer visualize the story you’re telling. Here are some examples:
2. Keep It Conversational
Because Pinker is on staff at Harvard, he often works with university students. In The Sense of Style, he warns that many writers try to sound intelligent in their writing, but this can weaken the content. Instead, he advises that writers think of their readers as intellectual equals. This will limit the temptation to try to impress them. He states: “Classic writing with this assumption of equality between a writer and reader makes the reader feel like a genius.”
By keeping your writing conversational, to a point, you can avoid making your reader feel unintelligent. That said, you may have to leave out some conversational aspects, like contractions or second-person, if writing a formal paper, but you can speak to the reader in a more conversational style, and your work will be more effective.
3. Consider Your Reader’s Knowledge
While you must keep it conversational, one mistake Pinker warns against is the “curse of knowledge.” This refers to what happens when a writer has a deep knowledge of a topic. They often write about it in a way that assumes the reader also has a deep knowledge. According to Pinker’s book, most writers cannot imagine “What it’s like not to know something that we do know.”
In other words, we write as if the person knows the topic at the same level we do. To avoid the curse of knowledge, consider showing your work to someone who does not know the topic. After reading it, can they understand it? This will reveal where you assume knowledge your reader won’t automatically have.
4. Know When to Break the Rules
Grammar rules are important, but Pinker indicates that arbitrary rules sometimes are meant to be broken. Pinker said in a lecture at the University of Manchester, “Many supposed rules are routinely flouted by the best writers.”
Some rules, according to Pinker, are impractical in modern society. For instance, using “they” as a singular pronoun may be grammatically taboo, but it can also be helpful in modern writing. Dangling prepositions are no longer as taboo as they once were, and sometimes passive voice is necessary. A list of rules he says are ok to break includes:
- Starting sentences with conjunctions
- Ending sentences with prepositions
- Using passive voice on occasion
- Using fragments when they make sense
- Splitting infinitives
5. Watch out for Nominalization
Nominalization occurs when someone takes a verb or other part of speech and changes it into a noun by adding a suffix. For example, the verb “affirm” can become a noun when you add -ation, making it “affirmation.” Pinker and other linguists call these zombie nouns. He warns that these nominalizations often come into play with passive constructions, or zombie verbs, making the writing weaker.
Writing without zombie nouns means you use fewer words to make the same point. For example:
- The grandmother gave each of her grandkids a $10,000 allotment in her will.
In this sentence, “allotment” would be a zombie noun, according to Pinker. The sentence has 13 words. You could use strong nouns instead and say:
- The grandmother’s will allotted $10,000 to each of her grandkids.
This sentence uses 10 words and says the same thing more directly, less passively.
6. Skip Intensifiers
Intensifiers are words that end in -ly or add intensity to your statement. You may be tempted to use these adjectives and adverbs to make your point stronger. Pinker warns that these make your point less persuasive. He says: “Intensifiers like very, highly, and extremely also work like hedges. They not only fuzz up a writer’s prose, but can undermine his intent.”
This goes against your instincts. You may think that saying something is “very exciting” is more intense than saying it is “exciting,” but in reality, the intensifier weakens the intensity. Instead, look for a more concrete verb or noun to better explain your meaning.
7. Show Confidence
In Pinker’s book, he warns writers against adding fluff to their writing because they aren’t confident. Words like “apparently,” “in part,” “predominately,” “rather,” and “to some extent” are types of fluff, and they show a lack of confidence. Using these words in your writing shows that you aren’t confident in your position. This uncertainty will make the reader doubt you. Pinker calls these hedging words. He says to remove them from your writing to show more confidence.
8. Use Modern Language
Language is an evolving entity. According to Pinker, “The orthodox stylebooks are ill-equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time.” As the English language evolves, so does our writing. Since language is constantly changing, tried-and-true writing tips can become outdated. Don’t fear using modern language in your writing when it makes sense to your reader.
For example, a decade ago, social media didn’t have as much of an impact on society as it does today. We now have words like “tweet” that have new meanings due to social media presence. Similarly, we have new acronyms that are understood and accepted that may not be in these older style guides. Use these if they make sense in your writing.
9. Read Extensively
Pinker recommends that you read a lot. Read writer’s style guides, like Strunk and White, and other writings in your niche. You can also read from niches that aren’t where you write; a good writer must be a strong reader. You will learn constructions, figures of speech, writing style, and more when you read. These aren’t things you can learn in the classroom as easily as you can by simply immersing yourself in other people’s writing. Reading quality writers will expand your grammar and also your vocabulary.
10. Revise, then Revise Again
According to Pinker, revising is one of the most important parts of being a good writer. You must be able to reflect on your writing and improve it if you are going to create pieces that stand out. He says: “Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. . . . Most writers require two passes to accomplish (good prose).”
If you are serious about being a strong writer, learn to revise. Look for grammar mistakes and spelling issues first. Then look beyond just these to make your writing more concise and effective. Make your argument as concise as possible, and clean up any messy arguments or misplaced words as you write. Make sure your writing is clear and concise, drawing the reader to the point you wish to make.
Looking for more? Check out our guide to general writing tips!
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