Skip to content
High Culture

Steven Pinker’s 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Key Takeaways
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.

1. Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why?

twitter.com

1. Reverse-engineer what you read.

2. Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language.

twitter.com

2. Prose is a window onto the world. 

3. 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.”

twitter.com

3. Don’t go meta. 

4. Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.”

twitter.com

4. Let verbs be verbs.

5. 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

twitter.com

5. Beware of the Curse of Knowledge.

Steven Pinker: Is human nature evil?

content.jwplatform.com

Interlude: Steven Pinker’s take on human nature. Is it evil?

Against chaos: The world is a hard place, but maybe humans aren’t …

6. Omit needless words (Will Strunk was right about this).

twitter.com

6. Omit needless words.

7. Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire).

twitter.com

7. Avoid clichés like the plague.

8. Old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end.

twitter.com

8. Old information at the beginning, new information at the end.

9. Save the heaviest for last: a complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence.

twitter.com

9. Save the heaviest for last.

Why libertarianism will never be a universal value

content.jwplatform.com

Interlude: Steven Pinker’s take on libertarianism (at any age, it’s marginal).

10. 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.”

twitter.com

10. Prose must cohere.

11. Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose.

twitter.com

11. Revise several times.

12. Read it aloud.

twitter.com

12. Read it aloud.

13. Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus.

twitter.com

13. Find the best word.

Want to dig further into Pinker’s writing style? Here’s the book he wrote on the subject. Enjoy!


Related

Up Next