A Cognitive Scientist’s Take On Writing Well

I enjoyed listening today to an interview during the NPR Radio program, Here and Now. The show’s co-host, Robin Young, spoke to scientist Steven Pinker about his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Perhaps surprisingly, Pinker isn’t a linguist or professional grammarian; rather, he’s a Harvard-based psychologist and cognitive scientist.

That perspective, however, lent an interesting wrinkle to the interview (in which he introduces unfamiliar terms like “zeugma” and “anapest” to the linguistic lexicon). Pinker approaches the topic of writing well informed by traditional linguistics as well as armed with insights into how the brain takes in and processes information.  Among his observations: good writing is visually stimulating.

Or, as Pinker explained to Young, “Good writing is actually written for the eye, it’s not just that vowels and consonants just pour into your ear, but as you understand language, you should be able to imagine what it is the writer is experiencing.”

Personally, I tend to regard good writing as more a common sense than “rule-based” practice. I know it when I see (or hear) it. And I usually write with that “principle” in mind. I realize as a writer, however, it’s also good to be technically well-grounded in grammar basics. So I was very interested to hear Pinker talk about his blending of traditional grammar and cognitive science. And I came away from listening to the interview eager to read, “The Sense of Style.”

Link to the entire interview below:



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