3 Lessons for Nonprofit Writers from Harvard’s Steven Pinker at Frank 2015

The nonprofit world has more than its fair share of bad writing. Impenetrable jargon, run-on sentences, and bloated paragraphs are everywhere in our reports, proposals, and other documents.

Giving our coworkers our industry “go to” Strunk and White’s classic “The Elements of Style” isn’t the answer, Harvard linguistics professor Steven Pinker told the audience at frank 2015, the public interest communicators conference at the University of Florida that I attended in February. The problem: Traditional guides like this one draw on the tastes of the authors themselves, contain contradictory and outdated advice, and don’t reflect changes in usage.

Pinker says there’s another way. Instead of repeating rules of grammar and usage that draw on myths and misunderstanding, we should look instead at the evidence for what makes for effective writing.

Pinker makes his case in a guidebook of his own, “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.”  In addition to discussing the science of language and the history of rules of grammar and usage, Pinker gives practical advice every writer can use.  It’s an enjoyable, funny book that will appeal to communicators and professionals alike.

Here are three of my favorite lessons from Pinker’s book and talk that can help all nonprofit writers now.

Beware the Curse of Knowledge

We assume everybody understands our subject. “It’s the best explanation of why good people write bad prose,” says Pinker.

How do you avoid this trap? Traditionalists say we should imagine the reader over our shoulder. Pinker sees merit in this, but argues, too, for awareness of the problems caused by curse of knowledge: use of jargon, abbreviations and technical terms.

Too many nonprofit writers think it’s a sign of professional weakness to explain professional terms like acronyms or use a short word instead of one with multiple syllables.  Your writing will be much clearer — and your readers grateful — if you keep your language simple and concrete.

Stop Hedging

“Many writers cushion their prose with ways of fluff that imply they are not willing to stand behind what they are saying,” says Pinker.

One of the most common ways I see nonprofit writers do this: using words like almost, apparently, in part, nearly, and somewhat. The next time you edit your writing, draw a line through these words, especially adverbs. You text will be much stronger.

Delete the Shudder Quotes

Quotation marks have legitimate uses, says Pinker, such as citing what someone has said or indicating that a writer doesn’t agree the meaning of word as it is used by others.

Many authors, however, use quotes around phrases like “think outside the box” or “young turks.” The result, says Pinker, is self-conscious and prissy writing. “If you’re not comfortable using an expression without apologetic quotation marks,” says Pinker, “you probably shouldn’t be using it all.

Want to learn more about Pinker’s ideas? Here’s a video of a talk he gave at Microsoft.

Mac Prichard

Mac started Prichard Communications in 2007 to serve nonprofits, foundations and public agencies after a long career working in the public and nonprofit sectors and with elected officials. Mac lives in Portland’s Ladd’s Addition where he is often spotted taking Instagram photos while walking his dog Kai, a Weimaraner.
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