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Looking to brain science for clues to better writing

University of Florida

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IMAGE: A new book by Yellowlees Douglas, an associate professor of management communication at the University of Florida, overturns more than a century of thinking about writing. view more

Credit: UF News

Good writing isn't an art, a University of Florida researcher says -- it's a science.

A new book by Yellowlees Douglas, an associate professor of management communication at the University of Florida, overturns more than a century of thinking about writing. The Reader's Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer -- published this week by Cambridge University Press -- uses decades of insights into the reading brain to provide writers with clear-cut, science-based guidelines on how to write anything well, from an email to a multi-million dollar proposal.

Douglas wrote the book to satisfy her frustrated students' needs for a guide to writing that "didn't just tell my students to imitate Hemingway, as one of them put it," Douglas says. "Here I was, teaching quantitative thinkers in the colleges of business and medicine, and every book I assigned had my students ready to tear their hair out."

So Douglas wrote her own book, drawing off the data that had first snagged her interest decades earlier while investigating the impacts of multimedia documents on reading. The book uses data from eye-tracking, EEG brain scans and fMRI neuroimaging, some of which gives scientific backing to the usefulness of old standbys like thesis sentences and active voice. However, the book also dispels many well-worn myths, like avoiding beginning sentences with "and." The Reader's Brain also provides insight into where to put information you want readers to remember -- and where to stash disclosures you'd rather they forget. Even the cadence of your sentences, the book argues, subconsciously cues your readers to your skill as a writer.

"People who work with data think systematically," Douglas says, "and, if you tell them to do something, they automatically want to know, 'Where's the data?' Having published in the sciences, I know exactly how they feel."

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