the most sociological thing we do is write

Whatever else about Steven Pinker, he can write.  Apparently he’s book about writing coming out, and he has posted an essay promoting it.  I thought a pair of quotes about good and bad writing were especially great.

On the good side:

The first thing to do in writing well is decide what kind of situation you imagine yourself to be in.*  The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

On the bad:

I don’t think that most bad prose is deliberate. I think it is inept. It is a failure to get inside the head of your reader.

As awkward and introverted as some good writers may be in social situations, writing skills are fundamentally social skills.

Incidentally, Pinker’s main advice is about the importance of showing drafts and getting feedback. Good advice, of course. At the same time, the better the draft, the easier it is to get feedback on it. (The shorter the draft, as well.)

* Confession: I couldn’t resist editing this sentence because it was missing a word and had a badly constructed parenthetical. The rest is verbatim pasted from his essay, though.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

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