Four Quick Writing Tips from “The Sense of Style”

I recently read Steven Pinker’s excellent writing guide The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. It’s aimed at non-fiction writers and I read it for my Science Communication MSc, but it also contains a lot of useful stuff for fiction writers. Here are four quick tips from the book that fellow writers might find handy…

“Beautiful” is more beautiful than “very beautiful”

When I was a teenager, I used to cram my writing full of intensifiers like “very”, “extremely” and “exceedingly” (Exceedingly was my favourite – I thought it made me sound fancy). This is an easy trap to fall into, because we can all get a little over-enthusiastic when we’re trying hard to get a point across.

The problem is that intensifiers can actually undermine the point you’re trying to make. As Pinker explains, an adjective on its own tends to be interpreted categorically. Someone is either completely honest, or not. Someone is either entirely beautiful, or not.

If you add an intensifier like “very”, you turn this all-or-nothing thinking into a spectrum. Someone might be quite beautiful, very beautiful, extremely beautiful, etc. It muddies the waters and takes away the impact of the adjective.

Save the heaviest for last

If you’re writing a list, the longest or most important word or phrase should go at the end to maximise its impact. For example, if you’re writing about a burglar who stole a bunch of things, it should be “He stole a TV, a laptop, and 2000 dollars in cash,” rather than “He stole a TV, 2000 dollars in cash, and a laptop.”

Importance should generally be prioritised over length. For example, “He stole a TV, 2000 dollars in cash, and a baby” is better than “He stole a TV, a baby, and 2000 dollars in cash.”

Watch out for zombies!

Before reading this book, I’d never heard of a “zombie noun”, and probably used them without meaning to. It’s a noun that’s derived from a verb, such as “make an appearance” (derived from “appear”) or “put on a performance” (derived from “perform”).

When a verb gets turned into a noun, it becomes lifeless and zombiefied (yes, that’s a word). Too many zombie nouns will make your writing sound stuffy, so it’s best to avoid them.

Learn the rules, then go ahead and break them

One thing I enjoyed about Pinker’s style guide was its impatience with grammar Nazis and language purists. We’ve all been annoyed by seeing “your” and “you’re” used interchangeably for the millionth time, but someone who acts like their world is falling apart every time someone makes a small error really needs to get a life.

The book argues that language is constantly evolving. If a word or phrase is used “incorrectly” by 90% of the population, and has been used by respected writers, there’s not much point in labelling it “incorrect”.

Also, (whisper it) there are more important things than grammar. If a woman prefers the term “chairperson” to “chairman” or a non-binary person uses singular “they”, it’s a dick move to insist that the rules of grammar are more important than equality or identity.

I hope you found these tips helpful. Got any quick tips of your own? Please share them in the comments!