Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker explains the keys to excellent writing.
Reading is one of the great pleasures of life, no doubt. A few days ago we echoed our particular ranking with 50 essential books that you have to read once in your life, and today we return for more, although from another point of view.
Writing and psychology, much in common
We are constantly communicating with written words; they are part of our life and our cultural heritage. We have all felt at some point the need to write our thoughts or our stories, and it is that writing can become therapeutic.
We may not be literary geniuses like Gabriel García Márquez or William Shakespeare, but the claim of the pen and paper (or the keyboard for digital natives) is often presented to us. However, putting on paper the ideas and reflections that go through our minds can be a complicated undertaking, and if not, ask the writers and their dreaded “white page syndrome”.
Steven Pinker brings us the psychological keys to writing better
One of today’s most renowned psychologists, Steven Pinker, a linguist and cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, has some answers to help us progress when it comes to the art of writing.
In his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century ( Sense of Style: guide the thinker to write in the XXI century ), published in 2014, Pinker advises us and offers us a comprehensive guide for those that we want to improve as writers.
In addition, his suggestions and teachings are based on a multitude of scientific research in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology: Pinker reviews the findings in the working system of our brain and teaches us to improve our ability to write. The author proposes a series of techniques and strategies that aim to understand how our mind works so that we know how to get the most out of it, in this case to be more creative and efficient when writing.
The 6 psychological tips for writers
Below we have summarized the six points on which Steven Pinker’s teachings are based. If you want to be a writer and improve your stories, this can help you.
1. Put yourself in the shoes (and in the mind) of the reader
Readers don’t know what you know. This seems like a very obvious point, but it is not so obvious. If there are people who do not understand well what you are trying to convey to them through your texts, the problem is not theirs, but yours. Sorry.
The psychological reason for this failure to write is that our brain tends to take a lot of knowledge, data and arguments for granted because you already know them, but do your readers know them as well as you? Probably not, and this is a frequent problem that must be dealt with, with self-criticism and reflection.
Steven Pinker calls this error the “curse of knowledge,” and it is the inability of many writers to understand that others do not know what they know. This leads to unclear texts, where things are taken for granted that mislead the reader. In his book, Pinker states that the best method to avoid falling into this error (which by the way is one of the most common according to editors) is to send a draft of the text to a person without specific knowledge, and ask him if he understands everything, or not.
2. Use a direct style, with images and conversations
The cognitive psychology does not tire of repeating that over 30% of our brain has functions associated with vision. Pinker also points out that there is a lot of scientific evidence showing that readers understand and are able to remember more elements of the text that have to do with language that evokes images.
In addition, it is convenient to use a conversational style and conceive of the reader as a well-known person: this will make them feel part of the story and the inner world of the writer. However, Pinker asserts, writing with a style focused on impressing the reader achieves the opposite effect, and the reader may feel overwhelmed and notice a great distance from what the author wants to convey.
In fact, research found that many college students deliberately used highly complex vocabulary to appear smarter. In fact, the simplest texts at the lexical level coincided with authors of superior intelligence.
The trick to finding a good harmony between reader and author, according to Pinker, is that as a writer imagine that you find yourself in a conversation with someone who has a similar cultural level to yours, but who has some knowledge less than you in the field about the one you are talking about. In this way you can guide the reader and make him discover some things that you already know but that he does not yet.
3. Put the reader in context
You need to explain to the reader what the objective of the text is, why you are telling them something, what they will learn from it. An investigation reported that readers who know the context from the start of reading are better able to understand thoroughly the text.
Pinker himself emphasizes this point, noting that readers must know the background to be able to read between the lines and connect all concepts and arguments in a more intuitive way. This means that the reader is located in the text from his previous knowledge, and that helps him better understand what he is reading. In fact, if there is no reference to contextualize, the reader will be unable to adequately understand the lines in front of him, it will be a superficial reading.
The advice is clear: as authors we must locate the reader, show him what the subject of the text is and what we want to explain. Although some writers refuse to do this for not removing suspense and mystery from the text, the truth is that it seems much more reasonable to conquer the reader from the first moment and get them to keep their attention and interest throughout the reading than not to trust that, Without being able to contextualize, you will be able to finish even the first paragraph.
4. Creativity (but common sense) when it comes to following the rules
By this we do not mean that we do not have to respect the rules of spelling and grammar, but when we are writing we must also leave some room for creativity and improvisation. The dictionary is not a holy book, Pinker argues. What’s more: dictionary editors are in charge of capturing the trends and uses of certain terms in each new edition, and this is only achieved by being connected to society, which is the engine that gives meaning to language.
Of course: you need to know the rules well to be able to break them from time to time with a good dose of creativity. Creativity, of course, must be a sign of quality, not an opportunity to show that we have wanted to “get smart”. If you do not know the writing rules of a language thoroughly, it is better that you do not try to reinvent the wheel and stick to some orthodox canons in your texts. There will be time to innovate, later.
5. Never stop reading
This and other writing guides are interesting and valuable tools, but if you want to improve as a writer, you need to read a lot, day by day.
Pinker’s vision is very clear: to be a high-quality writer, one must immerse oneself in varied books and texts, trying to learn new languages, literary resources, new terms and phrases with which to grow as a thinker and, therefore, as a Writer.
It’s simple: keep learning and researching is one of the keys to broadening your mental horizons and, consequently, your writing skills.
6. Review the texts thoroughly and patiently
To be an excellent writer, it is not recommended that you try to write great texts the first time, against the clock. In fact, that is a skill that few, very few, master. Actually, it is much better if you spend a lot of time and care to review and rebuild your texts.
Steven Pinker believes that revision is one of the keys to good writers. “Very few authors are self-demanding enough to capture the exact words that best explain what they want to convey. Less is more. This is achieved with the ability to know how to review and refine each paragraph, each sentence. When we write, we need to review and reformulate to make the message clear and reach the reader appropriately, ”argues Pinker.
One last thought
The ability to communicate through texts and books is something that can be learned. It is only necessary to practice and start our talent.
These strategies and techniques to improve writing that Steven Pinker has given us can help us empathize with our readers and get our message across in the best possible way. Write!