Why good writing matters

Founder & MD of Insight Agents, Sam Knowles, pens a personal paean to Steve Pinker, Harvard psychology professor, one of the most accessible serious scientists to have crossed over into the mainstream without compromising his academic integrity. In the process, readers lucky enough still to take their summer vacation get a top tip for holiday reading.

I like Steve Pinker. He and has words have had profound effects on me, over the years.

When The Language Instinct came out in 1994, Steve reawakened my dormant love of language. I was a classicist first time around the university block, and that book made me think about the power and meaning of words and language in a way that a decade of Latin and Greek never could.

In part it was the beauty and clarity of language with which he addressed his subject. Fine language to explain the finer points of language.

Five years later, Steve celebrated the paperback publication of his immodestly-titled How The Mind Works with a Guardian “debate” with Richard Dawkins titled “Is science killing the soul?” It was billed as a debate, but the 2,300 of us congregating at Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall had all (bar a couple of rabbis) come to worship at the atheist altar of two priests of exactly the same cloth.

The book was captivating because it tackled the thorniest problem of human psychology with an enviable lightness of touch. OK, I was disappointed by Steve’s conclusion that we lack the cognitive architecture to understand the questions we need to ask let alone grasp the answers, but it was a delightfully sugar-coated let down.

On stage, in print and online, I’ve always felt that Steve was approachable, hence my over-familiarity in this blog. So much so that I vented my disappointment to him by email. And – this being 1999, when getting an email was an event, even for an MIT professor – I got a personal, beautifully-worded response but a couple of days later. We struck up a brief correspondence, during which Steve gently – maybe unintentionally – cajoled me to attenuate my frustration at his argument with my own study and enquiry. It was an important correspondence, and the proximal cause that led me to step aside from the rat race and study a masters and then a doctorate in experimental psychology at Sussex.

The years rolled by, the books came out, I devoured them. I particularly enjoyed Words & Rules: The Ingredients of Language, a gripping read about regular and irregular nouns and verbs. I left my first, half-read copy on a plane at Heathrow and had to stop off en route home to buy another copy to find out what happened next. (Spoiler alert: the butler did it).

In the summer of 2003, as Steve started to spread his wings and topic base broader, I was keenly anticipating the publication of the paperback of The Blank Slate. I discovered that – as usual – the author would be visiting Britain to promote the book. How could I possibly lure Steve to come and talk to Sussex psychologists as part of his book tour?

First, I created an official-sounding group, the Sussex Postgraduate Psychology Society. I also knew that Steve was a major fan of Sussex’s first (and by then emeritus) professor of biology, John Maynard Smith. If I could somehow contrive a meeting between master and apprentice, perhaps talking to SPPS wouldn’t be so out-of-place or irksome …

Publisher and author took the bait. I asked Steve to arrive by 5pm, just to be on the safe side. Which gave us a full 90 minute private tutorial before the audience started to drift in to the biggest lecture theatre on campus. And though it was a hot summer’s Friday night out of term time, when Steve stood up to address how blank the evidence suggests the slate may be, there were 350 of us hanging off the rafters. My wife and I even got to take Steve out to dinner for a rather tipsier tutorial.

And though we’ve not connected for more than a decade, I’ve always felt close to Steve. My favourite – now late – brother Jeremy, then the Dean of Harvard, appointed Steve as Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. This was a major league signing, the move from MIT to Harvard like Babe Ruth leaving the Red Sox for the Yankees, and I so respected Jeremy for the appointment.

I’ve often read and reread Steve’s works, sometimes just for the pleasure of the prose. I treat The Language Instinct like a favourite film and dust it off for a fresh viewing every few years. It never disappoints.

So shortly after setting up my corporate and brand storytelling business, Insight Agents, I was thrilled to hear that Steve had written The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. I bought a copy at once.

Now I hadn’t started a business before, and lots of new and unfamiliar priorities started presenting themselves. Things like VAT, year-end accounts, business planning. Things that get in the way of more pleasurable things like reading finely-crafted books about why good writing maters and how good – and bad – language is processed differently by the brain. Life got in the way of my picking up the latest good book.

Until I stumbled upon a Vimeo recording of an interview between Steve and those excellent folk at The Writer from last summer. And in little more than an hour, I began to realise why I really needed to reprioritise my time.

I learned that we should avoid cliché because, if a phrase is too familiar, a listener stops processing language visually and so engages less deeply.

I learned about the Curse of Knowledge and how hard it is to imagine you don’t know something you have to explain in words to others.

I learned about how the judicious choice of vocabulary – selecting slightly uncommon words – can often be a more commodious fit, more pleasing, and so more memorable.

I learned that clarity breeds trust.

I learned that the more expert you become (the Curse of Knowledge again), the more abstract both your thought and expression becomes, and so the more turgid and impenetrable your prose can become.

I learned about the importance of showing your writing to someone who isn’t you; that the experience of saying “Who wrote this crap? Oh. It was me!” is more universal than I’d imagined.

And I learned that dumbing down is about oversimplifying to the extent that you don’t give enough information to make yourself understood.

The night I watched the Vimeo, I went to bed with Steve. Or at least his latest, skilfully-penned offering, The Sense of Style. And it set off the chain of thought that’s culminated in this blog. Nothing beautiful in this set of reminiscences, but I felt compelled to capture the way that Steve has helped to shape my life and work, from going back to school to creating my business. To write this paean in thanks. And to commend those still lucky enough to be looking for holiday reading to pick up a copy of The Sense of Style. I already can’t wait to read it again.

Thanks, Steve.

The internet is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? A full transcript of the Pinker-Dawkins love-in from 1999 is here.