I have just finished this and I want to read it all over again. I love this book.
Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist who has previously written about language in The Language Instinct, Words And Rules and The Stuff Of Thought. This new book looks at what is meant by good writing.
The start of the book looks at a lot of concepts which were relatively new to me, although once they were explained, they made perfect sense. This is one of the things I liked about it: unlike most books on language, it wasn't just a rehash of what has been said elsewhere. He explains why much writing fails to make sense or to engage the reader. Often, this is because the writer sees the world from his or her own point of view, taking knowledge for granted which the reader doesn't have, or jumps about a lot, leaving the reader confused. He has a good go at jargon and verbosity too.
It has made me see with new eyes many things I have written or things I have given my pupils to read. A recent exam asked, in the first question, something like this:
How does the writer make clear that he doesn't agree with the criticisms which have been made of David Cameron's speech?
That asks the kids to process two negatives and look for a positive. As I was in the middle of reading this book, I wanted to change the question to this:
How does the writer make clear that he agrees with David Cameron?
In the second half of the book, he looks more at issues of prescriptivism in language and shows which rules he feels do and don't really matter. He also shows how language just isn't logical, and often, recourse to rules doesn't solve the problem. I think this is the less successful part, as it is less discursive and more bitty. But it's all wonderful. I want everyone to read it, especially if I ever have to read what they've written.