When Science Meets Writing

Professor Yellowlees Douglas, an associate professor at University of Florida, recently wrote a book about the science of writing/reading called The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You A Better Writer. Usually, science and writing don’t mix well- at least personally. I always took the bare minimum of science and math courses in college and filled up my schedule with any many English and writing based classes as possible. But, Professor Douglas thought otherwise. She bases the data in her book off of a study she conducted that measured the impact of multimedia documents on reading. She used eye-tracking, brain scans, and neuroimaging to back up her findings. What Professor Douglas learned about writing, the structure of writing, and what readers want through her science experiments will make us all wish we paid a little closer attention in those science classes.


Here are a few writing tips from Professor Douglas that were highlighted in an article on Futurity:

  1. “Prime Your Readers”

Set up your story, don’t leave out missing details, and don’t leave your readers wondering what is going on. Introduce your characters fully and vividly paint the landscape/world your stories take place in. Do this early, since Douglas’ study shows that readers recall information better that they are given early on versus later. The good news is that this doesn’t mean you need to ruin your surprise ending, you just don’t want your readers to feel lost along the way.

2. “Use ‘Recency’ To Your Advantage”

Readers remember last sentences better than any others, so pack the punch in those sentences for a bigger effect.

3. “Disappoint Without Destroying Good Will”

Use priming and recency to take away attention from the disappointing or upsetting things you need to tell your reader that they may not want to hear. Take advantage of the “dead zone.”

4. “Bury Bad News”

If you have bad news to share start off neutral, then drop in the news, then put a positive spin on it.

5. “Harness Cause And Effect”

If you have something unsettling to tell your reader, put the cause first. Build up a rationale for what you are about to tell them, almost to a point where they can predict what is going to happen themselves. When we can rationalize something, we are less emotionally attached to it.

6. “Don’t Let Passive Voice Drag You Down”

Readers expect sentences to be constructed in the order of the way things occurred. When passive voice is used, the study shows that the reader’s speed slows down.

Write on.

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