Classic style

A continuation of Don't ask to be understood.

Read the essay

Steven Pinker's essay Why Academics Stink at Writing talks about "classic style". This is how you should write to stop sabotaging your own agency. Read the essay.

But if you don't want to read the essay, here's a sneak peek

Classic style is about making the reader notice a certain truth. If the reader succeeds, great. If they don't, it doesn't matter that they can nitpick—the goal isn't to avoid nitpicking. The goal is to be useful to the reader.

This is contrary to academic writing, which tries to avoid being nitpicked—being convicted—as much as possible:

Most academic writing, in contrast, is a blend of two styles. The first is practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy a reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which "the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise."

Here's an example of this happening:

Academic style:

In recent years, an increasing number of psychologists and linguists have turned their attention to the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent research on this process will be reviewed.

Classic style:

All children acquire the ability to speak a language without explicit lessons. How do they accomplish this feat?

When I read through "All children acquire the ability to speak a language without explicit lessons", I get scared that somebody will say "not all".

This isn't something that can be solved by learning to write differently.

This is something that can be solved by becoming more brave, and having more faith in your ability to defend yourself, and being able to say "you are right, but this is irrelevant". Noticing certain words can help, but only because they are signs for you to notice: "oh, so this is where I am not brave".

By noticing where you are not brave, and by being aware of the difference between bravery and cowardice, you will gradually shape yourself into the right form. From now on you can start noticing who else is in the right form, and who is a coward. And by knowing what the right form looks like, you will eventually arrive there on your own. 

Now read the essay

Here is the link again: Why Academics Stink at Writing. Thanks.


If you want a single word to watch for, it is "really". Whenever you say "really", remove it. Then see how you feel.