In which we blog about the marvellous intricacies of writing and editing.

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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Steven Pinker on Academic Writing

Writers and editors might be interested in this lecture by Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker on style in academic writing, which I revisited yesterday ahead of the release of Pinker’s The Sense of Style, a style and usage guide informed by evolutionary biology. There’s lots of useful advice here, some of it familiar (keep in mind the "reader over your shoulder", show a draft to a non-specialist reader, and so on), and some of it quite surprising or radical-seeming, at least to this occasional academic writer. For example, Pinker advises against starting an article with a paragraph that positions the discussion within recent developments in the field ("In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to [XYZ]", etc.), on the grounds that most readers are interested not in what academics have been doing over the past few years but in the actual phenomenon under question. He is also no fan of "hedging", the insertion into sentences of qualifiers such as "somewhat", "fairly", "to an extent" and "in part", which obviously serve to protect the writer against accusations of overstatement, but which, Pinker claims, are not really necessary ("You can count on the common sense of readers to fill in the missing hedges"). In response to a question at the end, Pinker admits that conforming to all these principles may be a tall order, especially given the expectations of other academics, and that most authors will have to "muddle through in a middle way". But academic writing, like many things, is compromise; the value of well-reasoned advice is that it helps us recognise the opportunity to do better when it is there.

1 comment:

Seb Manley said...

I’d also urge people to listen to the end for Pinker’s favourite example of clear writing, a vivid if zoologically questionable essay by a ten-year-old boy on the subject of “the owl” that proves actually to be mostly about the cow (“It has six sides – right, left, an upper and below […] The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere”).