How to think about writing

Public intellectual Steven Pinker has a new book approaching, a psychological study of the process of writing called The Sense of Style. And it sounds fascinating:

The key thing to realise, Pinker argues, is that writing is “cognitively unnatural”. For almost all human existence, nobody wrote anything; even after that, for millennia, only a tiny elite did so. And it remains an odd way to communicate. You cant see your readers facial expressions. They cant ask for clarification. Often, you dont know who they are, or how much they know. How to make up for all this?

Pinkers answer builds on the work of two language scholars, Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, who label their approach “joint attention”. Writing is a modern twist on an ancient, species-wide behaviour: drawing someone elses attention to something visible. Imagine stopping during a hike to point out a distant church to your hiking companion: look, over there, in the gap between those trees – that patch of yellow stone? Now can you see the spire? “When you write,” Pinker says, “you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world thats interesting, and that youre directing the attention of your reader to that thing.”

via This column will change your life: how to think about writing | Lifeandstyle | The Guardian.

That sets off about a million thoughts in my head, but it’s too late to write them down tonight. What do you think?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

5 thoughts on “How to think about writing

  1. I wonder if this is part of why ‘showing’ often works better than ‘telling’ (not that the two are really so separate, but that’s a whole other discussion). When you show someone it’s more like you’re sharing that moment of realisation, looking together at the thing that’s being pointed out, creating a greater degree of connection and mental intimacy. When you tell you’re saying ‘take my word for it, there’s a thing to see’.

    But that’s just my first reaction midway through my first coffee of the day.


      1. Which I guess makes the original question of how and why we enjoy the written word all the more difficult to understand. After all, it’s all about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, not our own. That’s a really important thing to do, but one we may instinctively shy away from.


      2. We certainly feel better if we think we worked it out for ourselves – I think that desire to feel smart explains the popularity with different audiences of authors as diverse as Umberto Eco and Dan Brown (let us not type his name three times in case he appears in the mirror and delivers another book).


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