Reading in Progress: The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

senseofstyle_stevenpinkerBook talks usually happen after I read the book. I decided to flip the script and talk about a book in progress, especially a book helping me take a look at my writing. Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century already generated heated debate among those clinging to writing rules. If people followed the all the writing rules, pieces would resemble the walking dead as they shamble around, slowly eating brains, the ideas decaying for the reader.

Before I decided to enter the Library Technician program, I considered entering Creative Communications at Red River. Not some fleeting thought, I mean actually considered it. I spoke with someone about balancing a job with the intensive program. I ended up not going, and my current career is not a second choice. In the Library Technician program, I still wrote, but I noticed an obstruction in my head making even a simple writing assignment difficult. The composition course written about in another post, the one using my piece as the example of ‘one needing improvement’, caused damage despite the good tutoring I did get in the campus writing centre.

I felt blind sided. I took me a long time to even put the word to that experience. While I finished with a B, the professor felt I from the experience. Quite the opposite, it left another mark to another experienced as a kid. I failed grade one due to a teacher feeling my English didn’t compare to other students. In 1975 Steven Pinker, or people like him, didn’t exist. They never looked at how people acquire language, or why we have these rules in the first place. I acquired language the way many people do-through story. Stories saved my life. Books and writers stepped in for the adults who failed. Writing rules play a role, but the race to standardize drills and results creates writers not able to infuse a voice even in an e-mail.

At page 50, Pinker’s book quietly pointed out the ways I hedge in my writing. Ever taken improv? Improv performers have three rules, and they can apply to writing:

  1. Accept the stakes and raise them
  2. Always say yes
  3. DO NOT hedge

Making verbs into nouns; using an intensifier like very, likely, and extremely; the increasing ‘academese’ of language; the use of grammar as a way to beat people down and not learn from those mistakes goes against the use of language like a paint brush. Pinker spends an early part of the first chapter pointing out Strunk and White sometimes contradicts itself,without diminishing the book itself.

What made the biggest impact involves our relationship. Yes, this one as writer and those reading my blog. Pinker writers about providing readers a window to a world. In this case my world, in my stories a fictional one. ‘Audience’ never say well with me, or it just never computed. Relationship on the other hand felt truthful. We talk about books like relationships. We talking about cheating on books with multiple books, as if they turn into multiple lovers.  We sense the tone of an author, if they feel honest, snotty, or taking on a role. It’s the biggest take away from the book, and helps me develop an authentic voice.

My voice felt injured after that composition class. I had no skills to process criticism, to sort what’s worth taking, and what’s not. I started to adopt this other voice in my writing. I tried to sound like the people reading esoteric classes in IB English. I felt like my background hindered me, and I tried everything to erase it. I needed to find its strengths, and celebrate it. Steven Pinker’s book tries to explore the ‘whys’ of grammar and writing. It’s the perfect book to answer the ‘whys’ in my life.

One thought on “Reading in Progress: The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

  1. I always did well with composition and I learned a lot from comp teachers and comp classes, but I think there’s no one way. Whatever works for you is best! It’s just hard for elementary school teachers to operationalize that.


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