Writing in the 21st Century

This isn’t a commentary on the physical act of handwriting as distinct from keyboarding, though last week’s Science Times section of the NY Times carried an interesting commentary on that subject.  No, what I’m getting at is the future of writing as a creative act.  I hinted at this in the Foreword that I wrote to our colleague Lynn Hellerstein’s marvelous book about visualization entitled See It, Say It, Do It!

HellersteinVisualization during reading is a two-way process.  In creative writing, for example, the author begins with images, concepts and pictures in mind, and selects the language that best conveys this to the reader.  The reader, in seeing the words, must reverse the process as the language triggers images, pictures, and concepts.  I was reminded of this as I received an email this afternoon from Edge.org featuring a conversation with author and psycholinguistic scholar, Steven Pinker.  If you have 37 minutes to spare, it would be well worth your time to listen to Dr. Pinker either on audio or video, or if you prefer to read through the conversation which is transcribed in its entirety on the Edge link.  In his younger days, before his mane turned gray, references to Pinker drew comparisons with Rock Stars such as Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.  Which brings to me a point of Pinker’s I’d like to highlight for you:

“In music the sciences of auditory and speech perception have much to contribute to understanding how musicians accomplish their effects. The visual arts could revive an old method of analysis going back to Ernst Gombrich and Rudolf Arnheim in collaboration with the psychologist Richard Gregory Indeed, even the art itself in the 1920s was influenced by psychology, thanks in part to Gertrude Stein, who as an undergraduate student of William James did a wonderful thesis on divided attention, and then went to Paris and brought the psychology of perception to the attention of artists like Picasso and Braque. Gestalt psychology may have influenced Paul Klee and the expressionists. Since then we have lost that wonderful synergy between the science of visual perception and the creation of visual art.”

I recall, as a freshman undergraduate student in the Fall of 1969, hearing the Led Zeppelin II album and being blown away.  What was so unusual about a composition such as Ramble On?  At the time it violated just about every conventional prescriptive guideline to what a song and its lyrics should sound and feel like.  You couldn’t anticipate what would come next, from its opening tick-tock sound in the background that began as if it would meter time only to transition into a time bomb erupting between your ears.

As with listening to music composed to titillate your ears, and in the process taking away creative ideas, Pinker notes that the best way to become a better writer is to elevate your appreciation of reading:  “So being a good writer depends not just on having mastered the logical rules of combination but on having absorbed tens or hundreds of thousands of constructions and idioms and irregularities from the printed page. The first step to being a good writer is to be a good reader: to read a lot, and to savor and reverse-engineer good prose wherever you find it. That is, to read a passage of writing and think to yourself, … “How did the writer achieve that effect? What was their trick?” And to read a good sentence with a consciousness of what makes it so much fun to glide through.”

PinkerProfessor Pinker’s Edge video is a promotion of sorts for his forthcoming book The Sense of Style.  The title draws comparisons to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which I mastered well enough to place out of English Composition in my freshman year at college, thereby giving me more time to appreciate Led Zeppelin.  But Pinker rightly replaces Elements with Sense, and in this regard updates numerous principles of effective written communication.  Take for example his point at the 16 minute mark of this address to MIT students on the classic style of writing using the model of Joint Attention:  “The writer orients the reader to something in the world, which the reader can see clearly with his own eyes.”  This presumes that both reader and writer have equal amounts of competence.

Just before the 43 minute mark of his MIT video, Pinker poses the question: “Why is it so hard for writers to use language to share ideas”?  Why do we have to spell all these rules out?  It stems from “Theory of Mind”, which Pinker notes is really an intuitive psychology about what makes other people tick.  It is a lifetime’s work to master this, and it is a “Curse of Knowledge” for some adults who have difficulty accepting that others do not have the knowledge that they have.  So a good writer will have an audience in mind, and have the ability to put himself in the reader’s position to grasp what may be opaque rather than clear.


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