How to think about good writing

BeachWhat's the secret to writing well? As I've argued previously, an awful lot of people seem to think they know, yet their "rules for writers" are almost always (pardon the technical linguistics jargon) bullshit. For example, "Show, don't tell" is frequently bad advice. In the right context, the passive voice is fine. Elmore Leonard's most famous rule, "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue", is sheer silliness. Even the sainted Orwell's rules are a bit rubbish: the final one is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous", which means his advice is really just "Don't write barbarically". So it doesn't bode well that the psychologist Steven Pinker has published his own advice book, The Sense Of Style. Judging by a recent interview at, however, this one might be different. Writing, Pinker points out, is inherently a psychological phenomenon, "a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind". So one place to begin is with actual psychology.

The key thing to realise, Pinker argues, is that writing is "cognitively unnatural". For almost all of 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 can't see your readers' facial expressions. They can't ask for clarification. Often, you don't know who they are, or how much they know. How to make up for all this?

Pinker's 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, namely, drawing someone else's 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 that's interesting, and that you're directing the attention of your reader to that thing."

Perhaps this seems stupidly obvious. How else could anyone write? Yet much bad writing happens when people abandon this approach. Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry. All these interfere with "joint attention", making writing less transparent.

This isn't a "rule for writers"; it's a perspective shift. It's also an answer to an old question: should you write for yourself or for an audience? The answer is "for an audience". But not to impress them: the idea is to help them discern something that you know they'd be able to see, if only they were looking in the right place. Happily, this also makes writing easier. "We never feel any difficulty when we are pointing out something directly perceptible to somebody next to us," Turner and Thomas say. "We are built for this." Understood this way, writing isn't a performance, a confrontation, or a matter of ramming information into someone else's brain. It's the writer and reader, side by side, scanning the landscape. The reader wants to see; your job is to do the pointing.

First published in Guardian Weekend in June 2014. Photo by Oliver Degabriele on Flickr.

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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