- Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why?
- Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language.
- Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.”
- Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.”
- Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: when you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms & technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, & prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else
- Omit needless words (Will Strunk was right about this).
- Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire).
- Old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end.
- Save the heaviest for last: a complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence.
- Prose must cohere: readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.”
- Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose.
- Read it aloud.
- Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus.
You might think you can rely on previous guides, but as an academic psycholinguist, Pinker has a deeper understanding. Consider this paragraph from the Prologue of Sense of Style:
Strunk and White, for all their intuitive feel for style, had a tenuous grasp of grammar. They misdefined terms such as phrase, participle, and relative clause, and in steering their readers away from passive verbs and toward active transitive ones they botched their examples of both. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground, for instance, is not in the passive voice, nor does The cock’s crow came with dawn contain a transitive verb. Lacking the tools to analyze language, they often struggled when turning their intuitions into advice, vainly appealing to the writer’s “ear.” And they did not seem to realize that some of the advice contradicted itself: “Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice” uses the passive voice to warn against the passive voice. George Orwell, in his vaunted “Politics and the English Language,” fell into the same trap when, without irony, he derided prose in which “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active.”