When we know a lot about a topic, it can be difficult to write about it in a way that makes sense to the layperson. To improve writing, Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker suggests several strategies:
- Use concrete nouns and refer to tangible things instead of abstractions.
- Assume that readers know less about the topic than you do, but are still intelligent and sophisticated.
- Have someone from the intended audience read your work and provide feedback.
- Allow time between writing and editing, so you can approach your own work with fresh eyes.
Let’s dive in.
Pinker is known for his fascinating insights on language and the human mind and penned a modern-day Strunk & White with his book, The Sense of Style. Infused with humor and informed by his deep understanding of linguistics, Pinker’s book dives into why our writing can be lackluster and offers actionable advice to improve its clarity and impact.
Please No More “Ese”
In the third chapter, Pinker addresses the familiar problem of academese, legalese, professionalese…all the eses that make one want to throw a book, paper, or article in the trash rather than finish it. What causes them? Is it because we seek to obfuscate, as is commonly thought? Sometimes yes — especially when the author is trying to sell the reader something, be it a product or an idea.
But Pinker’s not convinced that concealment is driving most of our frustration with professional writing:
I have long been skeptical of the bamboozlement theory, because in my experience it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do groundbreaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas, and are honest, down-to-earth people, the kind you’d enjoy having a beer with. Still, their writing stinks.
So, if it’s not that we’re trying to mislead, what’s the problem?
The Curse of Knowledge
Pinker calls attention to the Curse of Knowledge — the inability to put ourselves in the shoes of a less informed reader.
The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows — that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
The first way this manifests itself is one we all encounter too frequently: Over-Abbreviation. It’s when we’re told to look up the date of the SALT conference for MLA sourcing on the HELMET system after our STEM meeting. (I only made one of those up.) Pinker’s easy way out is to recommend we always spell out acronyms the first time we use them, unless we’re absolutely sure readers will know what they mean. (And still, maybe even then.)
The second manifestation is our overuse of technical terms which the reader may or may not have encountered before. A simple fix is to add a few words of expository the first time you use the term, as in “Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant.” Don’t assume the reader knows all of your jargon.
In addition, using examples is so powerful that we might call them a necessary component of persuasive writing. If I give you a long rhetorical argument in favor of some action or another without anchoring it on a concrete example, it’s as if I haven’t explained it at all. Something like: “Reading a source of information that contradicts your existing beliefs is a useful practice, as in the case of a Democrat spending time reading Op-Eds written by Republicans.” The example makes the point far stronger and more memorable.
Another part of the problem is a little less obvious but a lot more interesting than you might think. Pinker ascribes a big source of messy writing to a mental process called chunking, in which we package groups of concepts into ever further abstraction to save space in our brain. Here’s a great example of chunking:
As children we see one person hand a cookie to another, and we remember it as an act of giving. One person gives another one a cookie in exchange for a banana; we chunk the two acts of giving together and think of the sequence as trading. Person 1 trades a banana to Person 2 for a shiny piece of metal, because he knows he can trade it to Person 3 for a cookie; we think of it as selling. Lots of people buying and selling make up a market. Activity aggregated over many markets get chunked into the economy. The economy can now be thought of as an entity which responds to action by central banks; we call that monetary policy. One kind of monetary policy, which involves the central bank buying private assets, is chunked as quantitative easing.
As we read and learn, we master a vast number of these abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit which we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name.
Chunking is a useful component of higher intelligence, but it gets us in trouble when we write because we assume our readers’ chunks are just like our own. They’re not.
A second issue is something he terms functional fixity. This compounds the problem induced by chunking:
Sometimes wording is maddeningly opaque without being composed of technical terminology from a private clique. Even among cognitive scientists, a “poststimulus event” is not a standard way to refer to a tap on the arm. A financial customer might be reasonably familiar with the world of investments and still have to puzzle over what a company brochure means by “capital charges and rights.” A computer-savvy user trying to maintain his Web site might be mystified by instructions on the maintenance page which refer to “nodes,” “content type” and “attachments.” And heaven help the sleepy traveler trying to set the alarm clock in his hotel room who must interpret “alarm function” and “second display mode.”
Why do writers invent such confusing terminology? I believe the answer lies in another way in which expertise can make our thoughts more idiosyncratic and thus harder to share: as we become familiar with something, we think about it more in terms of the use we put it to and less in terms of what it looks like and what it is made of. This transition, another staple of the cognitive psychology curriculum, is called functional fixity (sometimes functional fixedness).
The opposite of functional fixity would be familiar to those who have bought their dog or cat a toy only to be puzzled to see them playing with the packaging it came in. The animal hasn’t fixated on the function of the objects; to them an object is just an object. The toy and the packaging are not categorized as toys and thing toy comes in the way they are for us. In this case, we have functional fixity, and they do not.
Now, if you combine functional fixity with chunking, and stir in the curse that hides each one from our awareness, you get an explanation of why specialists use so much idiosyncratic terminology, together with abstractions, metaconcepts, and zombie nouns. They are not trying to bamboozle us, that’s just the way they think.
In a similar way, writers stop thinking — and thus stop writing — about tangible objects and instead refer to them by the role those objects play in their daily travails. Recall the example from chapter 2 in which a psychologist showed people sentences, followed by the label TRUE or FALSE. He explained what he did as “the subsequent presentation of an assessment word,” referring to the [true/false] label as an “assessment word” because that’s why he put it there — so that the participants in the experiment could assess whether it applied to the preceding sentence Unfortunately, he left it up to us to figure out what an “assessment word” is–while saving no characters, and being less rather than more scientifically precise.
In the same way, a tap on the wrist became a “stimulus” and a [subsequent] tap on the elbow become a “post-stimulus event,” because the writer cared about the fact that one event came after the other and no longer cared about the fact that the events were taps on the arm.
As we get deeper into our expertise, we substitute concrete, useful, everyday imagery for abstract, technical fluff that brings nothing to mind’s eye of a lay reader. We use meta concepts like levels, issues, contexts, frameworks, and perspectives instead of describing the actual thing in plain language. (Thus does a book become a “tangible thinking framework.”)
Pinker partially defuses the obvious solution — remembering the reader over your shoulder while you write — because he feels it doesn’t always work. Even when we’re made aware that we need to simplify and clarify for our audience, we find it hard to regress our minds to a time when our professional knowledge was more primitive.
Pinker suggests a concise approach to improve writing:
- Replace abstractions with concrete nouns and relatable concepts;
- Assume readers are intelligent but less informed on the topic, focusing on clarity over showcasing intellect;
- Seek feedback from someone in the target audience to identify confusing sections; and
- Distance yourself from the first draft, allowing a fresh perspective when editing, and read it aloud to ensure readability.
By implementing Pinker’s strategies, writers can create clear, engaging, and persuasive content that truly resonates with their audience.