A Style Manual for the Rest of Us

by Christine Neilson
Information Specialist, St. Michael’s Hospital
Toronto, Ontario

I’ve decided I like writing. But the hard part about writing is making sure that it’s done well, and I’ve read enough library literature that was not well written that I get concerned about my work falling into that category, too. Before Christmas some colleagues told me about Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist/linguist, and his recent book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. They told me that Pinker’s books are very good and even entertaining. I thought, “The man writes about writing – how entertaining could it be?”, but I was curious. When I flipped through the book, I noticed that it included several cartoons: I took this to be a good sign. In the prologue Pinker wrote “By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts.” (p 6). If that doesn’t speak to an EBLIPer, I don’t know what does. I was sold.

It turns out the book was indeed entertaining. More importantly, it was easy to read and helped me to pinpoint a few areas that I need to work on. When all is said and done, I took two things away from Pinker’s book. First: there are rules to follow including, but not limited to, grammar and punctuation, but they are not an end in themselves. They are tools to get you closer to the goal that any writer should have in mind: composing clear prose that engages a reader in way that makes the topic easy to understand. In fact some of the rules we were taught in school are incorrect and the application of some others includes room for the writer’s discretion, and learning this made me feel a better about my writing (maybe it’s not so bad after all!). But what I liked best about Pinker’s book was the use of concrete examples of good and bad writing, and how the bad writing might be improved. It reminded me of the reality TV program “What Not to Wear”, where the hosts set out to improve participants’ wardrobes by showing them not only which elements work and which don’t, but also by giving the reasoning behind the advice so participants can continue to improve their style after the show is over. Pinker’s examples were drawn from a variety of sources, from academic papers to advice columns, and they illustrate that good (or bad!) writing is not limited to a specific area.

Pinker’s book also drove home for me that writing is an art form. There are rules and techniques to learn, but just like being able to follow a recipe doesn’t make you a master chef, knowing the rules does not necessarily make you a great writer. Any art form requires creativity, time, and effort. You have to develop a feel for what you’re doing that comes from experience: learning when to follow the rules and when to throw them away, and learning from others’ example. This may not be very encouraging for those of us who are not naturally inclined to be great authors and want a quick fix, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever tried to become proficient at anything, whether it’s writing, karate, mathematics, or Ukrainian dancing.

So how can we move our writing along the spectrum of “bad” to “good”? By practicing and reflecting on the good writing we come across. Reading Pinker’s book can’t hurt either. In fact, I believe I’ll read it again.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views of St. Michael’s Hospital, the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.