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Steven Pinker and Ian McEwan talk about what makes writing good

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?

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.

  1. 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.

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.

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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).

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