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The Sense of Style

The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

By Steven Pinker
15-minute read
Audio available
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

The Sense of Style (2014) offers a refreshing and relevant guide to writing potent, readable texts of all kinds. Instead of extolling the same confusing and sometimes counter-intuitive rules found in traditional style guides, The Sense of Style offers simple tricks and heuristics guaranteed to improve your writing.

  • Lovers of the English language
  • Professional or amateur writers
  • People interested in linguistics

Steven Pinker, who serves as Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, is an award-winning linguist and cognitive scientist. A professor at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology, he is the author of numerous best-selling books, including Words and Rules and The Language Instinct.

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The Sense of Style

The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

By Steven Pinker
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
Synopsis

The Sense of Style (2014) offers a refreshing and relevant guide to writing potent, readable texts of all kinds. Instead of extolling the same confusing and sometimes counter-intuitive rules found in traditional style guides, The Sense of Style offers simple tricks and heuristics guaranteed to improve your writing.

Key idea 1 of 9

Writers often get a sense of style from reading good writing.

There are innumerable style guides out there, all designed to help writers master the art of grammar and punctuation. However, most accomplished writers will tell you that they get their skills not from reading style guides but from paying close attention to other works they’ve read and enjoyed.

Indeed, studying good prose is central to developing solid writing skills. Take, as an example of engaging prose, the opening line of Unweaving the Rainbow, by scientist Richard Dawkins: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

Solid prose captures your attention by starting strong and avoiding clichés and banalities. When you want to add a sense of grandeur, take a tip from Dawkins and spice your prose with a bit of poetry.

But say you’re trying to communicate an abstract idea. One way to make the conceptual more concrete is to use vivid imagery, which can both make an idea clearer and anchor the reader’s imagination. In the same book, Dawkins describes the countless unrealized genetic possibilities as “unborn ghosts” – a potent and evocative image.

Dawkins is bold from paragraph one, and this makes a strong impression on the reader. And that, ultimately, is the goal of most literature, regardless of genre.

But you don’t have to limit your list of “good writing” to literary classics. Even the obituary column has lessons to offer.

New York Times writer Margalit Fox’s work in obituary writing demonstrates clearly that you can capture a person’s legacy in 800 words or less.

For example, when writing an obituary for Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, Fox wrote of his books: “Roundly praised, intermittently censored, and occasionally eaten.” This playful juxtaposition perfectly sums up the broad impact of his books – both on critics, some of whom denounced his work, and on toddlers, who, being too young to read, see books as just another thing to put in their mouths.

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