Ideas for improving writing

George Orwell’s essay on the use of the English language encouraged me to think about how to improve my writing by applying lessons from neuroscience and  cognitive science.

One idea is to optimize cognitive load.  By cognitive load, I mean the effort it takes to understand the ideas I want to convey.   Effective writing needs to maximize the density of ideas being presented, without exceeding the rate at which the reader can process them.  Because we can only think about a few things at the same time, we need frequent breaks in text to process information before moving on.  If I make my writing easier to understand, I can tell the reader more with the same number of words.

Some ideas for optimizing cognitive load:

  • Minimize word length. Long and unusual words take longer to identify, so I can improve my writing by using smaller and more familiar words.
  • Ditto for sentence size and paragraph length.
  • Shorter words and different-sounding words in the same sentence are easier to remember.
  • Analogies and figures of speech require an unnecessary cross-reference, so they should be minimized.
  • Repetition is crucial to forming long-term memory.  You can improve memorization by using spaced repetition – “a learning technique in which increasing intervals of time are used between subsequent reviews.”
  • Improve the retention, relevance, and utility of writing with frequent examples and references to the reader’s existing ideas and beliefs.
  • When appropriate, leave the outline in the final text, and use thesis statements rather than subjects.  For example, see my one minute cases.

Some things that disrupt cognitive efficiency:

  • “Cue words” are abstract concepts that can trigger emotional responses that blocks rational analysis. For example, President Obama’s speeches are full of words like “democracy”, “faith”, “reform”, “challenges”, and “destiny.” (It is OK to use these words when they are necessary to convey an idea and placed in an unambiguous context.)
  • Group affiliations are another kind of trigger word – when a reader identifies the author as belonging to either his or an adverse group, it triggers a distracting emotional response.
  • Logical fallacies.  Even if the logical flaw is not detected, it adds to the cognitive load without adding to the readers knowledge.  If detected later, it erodes the credibility of the entire argument.

One criticism of this kind of writing is that it has limited emotional appeal.  Emotional impact is important – it tells the brain make ideas more memorable.  I wonder if anyone has systematically thought about how to add emotional impact to writing.  What kinds of emotional appeals rely on logical fallacies, and what kinds best reinforce the lesson being taught?

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Ideas for improving writing

  1. You have provided a clear, helpful list of technical points about a piece of writing designed disseminate principles (as distinct, for example, from instructing someone in car repair). Your points deserve thoughtful consideration from serious writers.

    > “What kinds of emotional appeals . . . best reinforce the lesson being taught?

    I think the essential characteristics of a piece of nonfiction writing include the author’s definition of the subject, theme (thesis), purpose, intended audience, and adjusted style.

    If a writer has defined these essential (causal) characteristics objectively and executed them with skill, then his writing will automatically evoke emotion in his intended audience even if his writing style in a particular piece is “straight-forward.” Emotions are automatic value responses. If the reader doesn’t have the values, his emotions won’t respond.

    So, I see your question as being how to dramatize the theme, that is, how to show that it does have deep value for a particular audience.

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