Author to discuss his updated guide to writing
By Lou Fancher
There comes a time when even an old duck like the craft of writing needs an upgrade.
After all, when the most-recognized how-to writer's manual was published in 1918 ("The Elements of Style") and co-authored by an English professor born in 1869 (William Strunk Jr.) and his former student (well-known American writer E.B. White), there's a good chance styles have changed.
Or not -- which is exactly the mixed-on-purpose-message in Harvard University psycholinguist Steven Pinker's highly detailed new book, "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century."
Pinker will speak in Danville about his "manual for the new millennium" in a presentation co-sponsored by Rakestraw Books and the Athenian School. The free event, a 50-minute hybrid lecture and audiovisual demonstration, will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Center for Performing Arts at Athenian School, 2100 Mount Diablo Scenic Blvd.
Leaning into what makes bad writing so bad and good writing worthwhile reading, Pinker will arrive with a suitcase of capabilities. Chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, New York Times-bestselling author and an inveterate researcher of the effect of words on the human mind, he might appear to be pulling magic grammatical rabbits out of thin air if the science behind his message weren't rock-solid. Sure, this is a man who may swoon at a poetic line -- but also one who understands chunking, functional fixity, what he calls "the curse of knowledge" and the network of nodes making up the human brain. Better yet, he can explain it all.
"Pinker's book is an unusual hybrid of science and writing manual," Rakestraw owner and general manager Michael Barnard wrote in an email. "I booked the event because I think it's a terrific project and because it'll be a good chance to explore a new contour to our programming."
Athenian School librarian Jim Sternberg echoed Barnard's assessment. He said in an interview that practicing the broadest definition of education is always the private college preparatory school's targeted goal. Athenian students often ask visiting authors about making writing a career -- partly inspired by a number of school alumni who've had work published, according to Sternberg.
"The conversation about language and communication and where they intersect with biology is a special interest here, but we offer this program to the extended community also," Sternberg said.
Barnard said his book store customers frequently inquire about writing groups and the publishing world.
"Writing workshops are an interesting possibility (for future Rakestraw in-house events)," he said, "but we're limited by our space and the lack of a writer on staff. We're all readers, so we tend to promote reading most effectively."
And Pinker would be the first to applaud, because his book establishes early on that knowing the reader is essential for effective writing. If Rakestraw and Athenian are putting out multitudes of eager, informed readers, the writer's task of communicating leaps light years forward.
Central to the fatal chasm that bad writing opens between writer and reader is what Pinker calls "the curse of knowledge." Chapter 3 explores "the difficulty of imagining what it's like for someone else not to know something that you know." The problem is so pervasive he says psychologists have invented numerous terms for it: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency and more. Worse yet, we don't even know what we don't ourselves know.
"The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose," Pinker writes.
Solutions, from the age-old "remember the reader over your shoulder" to more progressive, pinpointed ideas like eliminating jargon or reducing technical terminology show Pinker suggesting something akin to a moral selfie: " ... try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel."
Having conducted research on the mental dynamics of reading and arguing spiritedly that people have been moaning for centuries about the degradation of language -- now due to the Internet, television, progress, schools in disrepair, poor parenting or the simple abandonment of classic, rigid rules -- Pinker leads by example. His book's clear, elegant writing -- rendered with nerve and style -- is a lesson unto itself.