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.

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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.

Speaking Well vs. Writing well

Here I am again… with editing on my brain! As I mentioned in my last post, much of what I write about on this blog deals with the importance of editing. If you are one of the few who can actually afford to pay someone to edit your book, or if your publisher handles the editing process for you, then editing is not a problem. But, for everyone else editing is super important and often very stressful. I didn’t think it was possible, but today I realized that editing is even more important than I had previously thought.

I came across an article written by Jill Rosen on Hub, in the Science and Technology section, that discussed how writing and speaking are actually supported by different parts of the brain. Meaning, someone can speak properly but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can write properly and vice versa. It’s actually a pretty cool concept to think about, but what does that really mean for writers? Especially in terms of editing?

Some writers/authors have extensive training in writing- they studied it in college, attended workshops, and possibly even went on to masters/graduate programs. These people have a huge advantage when it comes to editing because they have trained their eye to pick up on things that are on the paper in front of them, putting aside words that are floating through their brains or coming out of their mouths. Their focus is on what they can see on the paper in their hand, on their desk, or on the computer screen. Most writers don’t have that trained background. Maybe they only took a couple English classes in college, or maybe they did not even go to college. Self-publishing opens many opportunities for people to become authors, who never would have been granted that chance before. This is great, but it always comes with it’s challenges. Editing is one of those major challenges, especially when our brain can tell us one thing but we actually do another. Just because you speak with perfect punctuation and grammar does not mean that you will write with the same perfections.

It is important to keep that in mind when considering self-editing. Just because you may say the sentence as it’s supposed to be written, that does not mean it transfers to paper the correct way. Many errors can be overlooked because we are actually saying it correctly so the error doesn’t pop out to us. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about this (except to have multiple people look at our writing before publishing). Our brains work the way they work. But, it’s something that we need to be aware of and something that needs special attention. Speaking well does not equate to writing well. Getting as much editing help (free or paid) as possible while writing a book is imperative to its success. Write on.