A review of
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
(Author: Steven Pinker)
There are two ideas in cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style that I believe are toweringly critical:
- close empathy with the mental strivings of your audience, and
- viewing explanation as building an image.
You might wonder why I am reviewing a book about better writing when our educational vision eschews text in favor of audiovisual. There are good books about designing multimedia for learning (an obvious one is Clark and Mayer’s e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning.) I’ll say more about this later, but it’s partly inspired by my pleasure at seeing that the same aspects of cognition are central for both text and multimedia. And because Professor Pinker explains those cognitive aspects so well.
I was also excited to finally see a prominent authority like him point to an idea that I try to explain to teams and colleagues: something I’ve long referred to as “expert amnesia.” It’s the idea that, when you become an expert about a thing, you inevitably lose the ability to ever again understand what it is like to not know that thing.
Professor Pinker refers to the phenomenon as the “curse of knowledge,” and he remarks that, along with this one, psychologists have been identifying lots of natural misapprehensions that all humans have. He explains:
The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.
The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows— that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail. The ubiquitous experience shown in this New Yorker cartoon is a familiar example:
Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it. This blindness impairs us in every act of communication.
The curse of knowledge is insidious, because it conceals not only the contents of our thoughts from us but their very form. When we know something well, we don’t realize how abstractly we think about it. And we forget that other people, who have lived their own lives, have not gone through our idiosyncratic histories of abstractification.
(He goes further to describe some of the daily frustrations that oblivious writers cause us, and observes, “Multiply these daily frustrations by a few billion, and you begin to see that the curse of knowledge is a pervasive drag on the strivings of humanity, on a par with corruption, disease, and entropy.”)
The other critical principle is building an image for the learner. Professor Pinker describes and advocates what he calls “classic style” in writing:
The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world … The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.
A writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation. The nature of each experience shapes the way that classic prose is written. The metaphor of showing implies that there is something to see.
At first glance classic style sounds naïve and philistine, suited only to a world of concrete goings-on. Not so. Classic style is not the same as the common but unhelpful advice to “avoid abstraction.” Sometimes we do have to write about abstract ideas. What classic style does is explain them as if they were objects and forces that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.
You might assume that putting material into multimedia format instead of text eliminates the problem here, but in my experience developing such material and working with instructional designers, that is not the case. It takes high intelligence and a ton of work to come up with good images—diagrams, graphs, illustrations, photos, what have you—that really convey the key meaning. (In contrast, much existing e-learning material instead incorporates images as a more decorative aspect, merely as an attempt to keep the learner’s interest level up as a boring narrative drones on.)
I have often said (or wanted to say) to college professors that, when they are lecturing, that they should not assume that the images coursing through their own mind as they explain are also appearing in the minds of their students.
These ideas are especially critical when you want to help people understand complex topics of government and economics, subjects that are very far removed from everyday experience. News shows tend to have a stock of B-roll that they recycle ad nauseum—US Dollar printing presses, a shot of the White House—which really convey nothing about the underlying phenomena. Well-constructed graphs have a role to play, though we all know how tedious they can be to deconstruct and interpret. Good instructional design for subjects like these must develop the right images, revealing them at a pacing that continuously is conscious of the learner’s “cognitive load”; and designers must avoid using words that the audience may not understand.
There has not been much useful academic research that tells us exactly how we should design learning materials for complex topics like this. Much of the low-hanging fruit was explored by the 1980s; for example, Card, Moran, and Newell’s The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction laid out in 1983 what we know about how humans process information. I love this illustration in their textbook:
The reason that researchers have not provided more tools and prescriptions is not laziness; rather, it is that there are too many combinations of: learner categories; types of subject matter; resource levels; and learning contexts. Each design challenge is relatively unique, and one-size-fits-all principles are often unhelpful. It’s easy to assert, for example, that learner empathy is critical when teaching economics; but what exactly does that mean for teaching community college students about the functioning of the banking system?
I don’t know if any of this is making sense to you. As I write this, you, the reader, only exist in my imagination. I cannot see your reactions, and I am only guessing at what you already know. Tough design challenge!