Steven Pinker on why academic writing stinks

Most peer-reviewed scientific writing commits four sins, says Steven Pinker (link to talk at Harvard University, Steven Pinker: Stylish Academic Writing, May 20, 2013):

  1. It discusses what scientists do, rather than the phenomenon of interest.
  2. It is weighed down by unnecessary meta-discourse, i.e. sign-posts (We have just… Next,… But first…).
  3. It indulges in excessive apologising (extremely complex…, It is difficult to… more research needs to be done).
  4. It engages in compulsive hedging (somewhat, fairly, predominantly…, to a certain degree).

He explains that this terrible language is the result of an inherent  mismatch between ordinary thinking and speaking, and what we have to do as academics. He sees three principles at work:

  1. Your inner primate:
    The mind is concrete. Abstraction represents a laborious mental process: You perceive and understand the world, then make an abstraction, and finally reverse-engineer the abstraction into a metaphor. In creating an abstraction, your mind has processed and chunked your thinking.  You then label that chunk, and henceforth use the label. Anyone who has not gone through the same motions as yourself will not fully understand what the label represents.
  2. The curse of knowledge:
    Once you have learned something, you will normally no longer be able to imagine what it was like not to know it. You forget your own history of chunking.
  3. The difference  between naive Realism and Postmodernist self-consciousness:
    Writing, says Pinker, is an ‘unnatural’ form of communication, since the audience is unknown, differs in time and space from yourself, and has not experienced what you have.
    This is especially intimidating to graduate students, facing a peer group that seems to know everything, when in fact each one of them has their own biography of learning. Indeed,  it’s very hard to gauge how much knowledge your reader has.
    So how to overcome the knowledge gap? Steven Pinker has a penchant for clarity, and has found the most useful model presented by Francis-No’el Thomas and Mark Turnerin their book Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Second Edition 2011):
    The authors propose ‘classic prose’ as a tacit model of the prose communication process to aspire to, aiming for joint attention between the writer and the reader as the writer guides the reader to something in the world that the reader can see with his or her own eyes, using conversation.
    Pinker says that, unfortunately, the classic prose model is flawed.
    There are several assumptions at work:
    1. truth can be known
    2. prose is a window into an objectively existing world
    3. thought precedes writing
    4. thoughts are concrete images so the writer can get someone else to see something that is objectively out there.
    These assumptions denote naive realism, which is incompatible with the stance required by science: relativism, self-consciousness and irony.
    So what does Pinker recommend?
    He says we should not continue to use the language of science, but adopt the classic prose model to create good, readable texts. He says: Keep your critical stance, but write as if what you are saying is in fact true. Let the reader fill in the blanks and make it easy for him or her to find a way through your arguments by minimising your hedges, apologies and  sign-posts.

Pinker has recently published a very useful style guide: Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin.

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Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

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