The Key to Good Style

I have so enjoyed Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style.

If you are writing books or sermons, blogs or lesson plans, you will greatly benefit from his thoughts on good communication.

One particularly poignant section captures the secret to good style in a simple metaphor. Pinker writes:

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is distinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation. (p. 29)

I love the imagery Pinker provides. A good writer simply leads the reader to the window and shows him something hitherto unseen.

Come with me. Do you see that tree? Good. Now, go up to the third branch from the bottom. Look to the end of that branch and you will notice a little red bird. That is a cardinal.

This kind of plain, conversational leading is good communication in a nutshell.

Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, New York: Viking.

The Cure for Miscommunication

What’s the cure for miscommunication? It’s not perfect communication. It’s not more information. It’s far simpler.

Quick to Listen

The cure for miscommunication is to shorten the feedback loop.

Seth Godin writes:

The challenge of communication isn’t to never miscommunicate, it’s to cut down the time between the interaction and the realization that the communication didn’t get through. Because the sooner we know we’re not connecting, the sooner we can fix it.

We will always miscommunicate. Our best hope for improvement is feedback. This means the secret to good communication is actually listening.