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Steven Pinker traces the source of bad writing

posted: 10.2.14 by Andrea Lunsford

In September 25’s Wall Street Journal, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (author of The Language Instinct, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and many other books) published an essay on “The Source of Bad Writing.” You can read the essay here—and it looks to be an excerpt from a chapter in his hot-off-the-presses The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, a volume I will review soon.

The perils of failing to sense “the reader over your shoulder.”

In the meantime, in the pages of the WSJ, Pinker identifies the source of a great deal of bad writing as a failure to sense “the reader over your shoulder.” In short, bad writing results from writers not understanding that their audiences don’t know exactly what they know, that they need to modulate their sentences and paragraphs with readers’ needs firmly in mind. He gives lots of good examples: from the class-fulls of students who send him attachments each with the exact same file name, to a noted speaker who is aghast to find that his audience hasn’t understood a word of what he has said. He calls this flaw in writers “the curse of knowledge”:

How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice—always remember the reader over your shoulder—is not as effective as you might think. None of us has the power to see everyone else’s private thoughts, so just trying harder to put yourself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it’s a start. So for what it’s worth: Hey, I’m talking to you. Your readers know a lot less about your subject than you think, and unless you keep track of what you know that they don’t, you are guaranteed to confuse them.

Pinker also provides a bit of additional advice for how to avoid such bad writing: first, make sure to give your writing to colleagues and friends for review; if they don’t understand you, chances are others won’t either. Second, he suggests that you “show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar.”

If this advice sounds familiar to writing researchers and instructors, it should. Writing in 1979, Linda Flower identified “Writer-Based Prose: A Cognitive Basis for Problems in Writing,” and went on to elaborate on the differences between such prose (which is highly interiorized and unaware of audience concerns) and reader-based prose, which acknowledges the audience and its needs. Flower carried out extensive research on this phenomenon and wrote widely about how to recognize and address writer-based prose. Much of what she recommended 36 years ago is now commonplace in writing studies, with its emphasis on audience awareness, kairos, and, especially, peer review and revision. These are staples of every writing program today.

I look forward to reading Pinker’s book: he’s an engaging writer and I have learned a great deal by studying his works on language, the brain, and human behavior. I’ll report if I do, or do not, learn anything new about writing and how best to teach it.

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