Unlocking the secrets of being a better writer

Understanding the reading brain can help academics and students improve, says Yellowlees Douglas

August 6, 2015
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Students have consistently placed writing skills at the top of their list of desirable graduate attributes. So how come they are still so dissatisfied with the results of universities’ efforts on that score?

Writing courses are a compulsory part of undergraduate programmes at most US universities, yet the results have been underwhelming. So what needs to change? For starters, we need a significant change in methodology from the current grab bag of approaches that include advice doled out in writing guides, a focus on the processes writers go through and watered-down remnants of Aristotelian rhetoric.

The last breaks down the art of persuasion into forming arguments, understanding your audience and conveying your credibility. However, even the academic literature on teaching writing skirts the fundamental issue every writer must grapple with: what makes some sentences and paragraphs easier to read than others? Hence, the answer is a mystery even to writing tutors – as I learned from teaching in four different writing programmes in the US. That two of those addressed the needs of students and staff working with quantitative, empirical data was part of my inspiration for turning to science for answers.

We have an abundance of data on the reading brain, spread across psychology, linguistics, neuroscience and neurology. Researchers long ago established that passive construction – that evil that writing guides all warn you to avoid – slows down reading speed and impairs recall. In one study, one-third of readers even agreed that “the dog was bitten by the man” was a plausible scenario, despite the sentence’s brevity and simplicity. In contrast, they instantly recognised the implausibility of “the man bit the dog”. The reason is that our brains are hard-wired to perceive events around us as causal, and we subconsciously expect our sentences to adhere to the default subject-verb-object English structure. Passive construction therefore obscures who did what to whom.

Once you grasp how words, sentences and paragraphs challenge the reading brain, the “black box” opens up and good writing moves beyond being an art best studied by reading what good writers have got away with. You become aware how, in a job application letter, those causal transitions – “as a result”, “consequently”, “because” – help your potential employer grasp how employing you will lead to productivity gains. You use “recency effects” to ensure that your most important points remain with your audience. Readers best recall the last quarter of lists, sentences, paragraphs and documents, while the middle parts are a “dead zone” to the memory. As a result, if you have to acknowledge your study’s shortcomings, do so mid-paragraph and then move on to something else.

A strong case exists for such a science-based approach to writing to be taught at secondary school. Failing that, the approach should certainly be taken up in higher education, no matter what the course of study. The advice will be effective even if students fail to grasp the psychology behind the principles.

I know this because I have successfully used a science-based approach for nearly two decades at the University of Florida, where I have taught writing not only to undergraduates but also to postgraduates and even academics in virtually every field. Many of my former students have, in turn, used the same approach in teaching their own students.

Needless to say, English departments are the natural home of efforts to improve writing, and the discipline could increase its centrality to higher education by embracing studies of the connection between the reading brain and words on a page. Courses could constitute part of English degrees, as well as serving the needs of students in other fields.

Until we treat writing as an area ripe for empirical studies, debates on what makes good writing will continue to amount to clashes of opinionated dogma, instead of reasoned consideration of existing and new data.

Yellowlees Douglas is associate professor of management communication at the University of Florida and author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer (2015).

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Unlocking the black box

Reader's comments (1)

Old wine in new bottles? Yellowlees Douglas's plea for a "scientific" approach to teaching writing skills is understandably a plug for her new book, which may be very good. Judging from her article, however, its practical prescriptions are a mixture of common sense and what good writing guides have long advised, given additional authority by the invocation of neuroscience. Although Douglas talks dismissively about the "watered-down remnants of Aristotelian rhetoric", what is this if not an example of establishing Aristotelian ethos by association - "conveying your credibility", as Douglas puts it? Writing clearly and correctly is crucial, but it is only part of what students need to learn: style was only one of the five Roman rhetorical canons. Among other things, they also need to construct - and critique - arguments (logos). Nobody would look to Aristotle for practical guidance on writing clearly in English, but clarity of expression is only part of the picture: studying and practising rhetoric gives you the whole.

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