Pinker on language is a treat: he gets the point, and to the point, conveys it quickly.
Language is an app for converting a web of thoughts into a string of words.
Speaking is easy, writing is hard. Classic writing was based on language being a window into a world. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate.
Sequence matters: the reader needs to know what happened next, and who did what to whom. Active voice is fine, passive voice just as fine when you need to maintain the reader’s focus on a chain of events.
Word strings contain ambiguities, so they need to be worked on until the meaning is clear. Writing involves solving problems of dependent implications: words and phrases in the wrong places create eddies of confusion. (Write in the morning, edit in the evening). Text is a matrix, clarity a work of art.
(Here is a clumsier second version, put in at the editing stage and then taken out again: Text is a matrix to be arranged with care, pruning out unintended consequences: clarity a work of art.)
The curse of knowledge is imagining that because you know something, everyone else does, and explanations are not necessary. Overcoming that curse requires getting a few target readers to go through your draft to let you know what they don’t understand.
Then: (my paraphrase)Write to make sense.
1) Get your ideas down on the page
2) Arrange the words so the ideas rise off the page for the reader.
The better the writer, the more he will be believed. Many critics of intelligence testing write very well, and carry their readers with them, as good writing usually does. Intelligence researchers must write better. Don’t apologize: explain. Don’t hedge: bet.
These are brief reflections after watching Steven Pinker’s invited presidential address at the ISIR conference in Albuquerque.
I hope I will find it easier to write well.