Conceptual Maps For Clearer Writing


Steven Pinker gave an interesting talk on effective writing which focused on the 'classical' style. The talk is worth watching, but there is one particular component of it I would like to look at.

In one section of the talk, he describes writing as essentially taking a non-linear mental map of the concepts we are writing about and putting them down linearly as prose. As a concrete model, he uses a graph of nodes with arrows between them.


This means that there are many possible choices for writing down this map, some better than others.


The simplest case of this process is a single arrow going between two nodes. We can think of any single arrow as a simple sentence in Subject-Verb-Object form.


So this graph:


could be written as "Jim threw the ball."

But any sentence like this can also be reversed while keeping the same meaning by using the passive voice: "The ball was thrown by Jim."


So the passive voice can be seen as a reversal of the arrows in our map.

Dr. Pinker argues that while the common advice to avoid the passive voice is often right, it is usually because in those cases passive voice is a symptom of badly-thought-out orderings of concepts.


And therefore we can avoid the underlying problems by considering the natural order of ideas inherent in our conceptual graph.


Instead of primarily wondering "am I using the passive voice too much?", we can ask "does the order I am going through my concepts in make sense?".