Unlocking the Black Box

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, August 6, 2015 | Go to article overview

Unlocking the Black Box


In papers and job applications, understanding the reading brain can improve your writing, says Yellowlees Douglas

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. …

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