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Norman Holland
Norman N Holland Ph.D.

3 Simple Rules for Writing That Match the Human Brain

Write with your readers' brains in mind

Broca's area

Broca's area

Rule #1. Use the simplest word that will do the job. Don't say "utilize" or "employ." Say "use." Don't say "observe" when "see" will do. Don't say "demonstrate" when "show" will say what you mean. Often, when novice writers try to show off with big words, they misuse them and end up with egg on their faces or prose.

Rule #2. Use the simplest sentence structure that will do the job. Like that sentence. It could have been: "If a less complicated sentence will suffice for the purposes of your prose, then that is the preferable sentence." Psychological writing teems with horrors like "It is evident that" or "It will be noticed that " or "it was observed that." How about "we saw" or "you can see that"? Don't say, "It can readily be inferred that John Updike was very fond of words." Say, "Obviously, John Updike loved words."

Rule #3. Use active verbs.Passive verbs work best for bureaucrats hiding responsibility. "It was decided that . . . " Who decided? Copulatives are not nearly as much fun as the name would suggest. "Is" traps many a scholarly writer. (It would have trapped me if I had written "'Is' is a trap for scholarly writers.") If you use active verbs, you'll bring in people. You may even tell a story. If you follow rule #3, you'll more or less automatically follow rules #1 and #2.

These rules won't won't make you into a Philip Roth or Margaret Drabble. They have imagination, and I don't know any rules for that. But these three simple rules will make your writing readable. It won't irritate your readers. You might even get more of them.

You probably have figured my tactic out by this time. All I've done is turn the readability scales around. I've made the factors they measure into rules. Sort of.

To rate readability, most people use one of the two scales based on Rudolf Flesch's work, because with MSWord you can have the computer do the work. It will apply the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Age or the Flesch Reading Ease. Both scales rely entirely on sentence length (short is good) and the number of syllables per word (many is bad).

Now you'll notice that I've just turned the readability scales around into rules. Sort of.

Long ago, I looked up Flesch's dissertation , and for a long time I relied on his The Art of Readable Writing (1949), a fine little book. He even provided, if I remember right, a nomograph for calculating readability. In his early works, Flesch didn't rely just on the number of syllables and sentence length as the current formula does. He also said that you should use personal pronouns and other references to people. He didn't talk about active verbs, but he could have. Talking about people automatically brings in active verbs. But alas, MSWord can't count people or active verbs. Maybe that's why they dropped out of the formula. My three rules urge you to put active verbs with their human subjects back into your quest for readability.

But what do these three rules have to do with the brain? After all, that's what my blog is supposed to be talking about.

I find the first rule intuitively obvious. The simpler the word, the less you have to poke around in your brain's store of vocabulary.

I find the second and third pretty obvious, too. Think National Enquirer. That august journal knows how to reach every level of reader. Simple words, simple sentences, tell stories, and limit your paragraphs to two sentences.

But the second and third rules have to do with the way the brain works. Take a look at the review article listed below. A number of researchers have been showing that Broca's area doesn't just do language. It may do something much more general. It may shape our efforts to sequence actions toward goals. Broca's area may arrange actions or musical notes or syntactic units to bring things to a desired end. Broca's area may organize nested actions like putting a clause in the middle of a sentence or a solo in the middle of an ensemble jazz performance. It may organize putting one action in the middle of two others. Open the door; turn on the light; close the door. Broca's area may be what allows you to organize those three steps to go into a room.

In other words, if you use simple sentences and active verbs you are using but not taxing the Broca's areas in your readers' brains. They can understand your language the same way they organize their own actions. They keep it simple. And so should you.

Items I've referred to:

Fadiga Luciano, Laila Craighero, and D'Ausilio Alessandro. "Broca's Area in Language, Action, and Music." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1169 (2009): 448-58.

About the Author
Norman Holland

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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