Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Science of Writing

On March 18, 2012, the New York Times published Your Brain on
Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul. In that article, Ms. Paul discussed recent research suggesting that reading about an event often stimulates the same areas of the brain as experiencing it. As an example, Ms. Paul cites a 2006 study where researchers studied participants’ brain waves while reading words with strong odor associations, such as “perfume”, and “coffee”, and words without odor associations like “chair” or “key.” The olfactory cortex (the part of our brains that processes scent) was activated by the “smelly” words like “perfume” but not the odor neutral ones like “chair.”

Similarly, a study from February, 2012, demonstrated that clichés like “had a rough day” or descriptive phrase like “he had strong hands” were processed like any other words. However, the phrase “he had leathery hands” engaged the sensory cortex. Another study found that words of motion activated the motor cortex (which coordinates movement). Other studies have found that the regions of the brain used to understand a story substantially overlap with those we use for social interaction, and more avid readers seem better able to understand other people.

What does this mean for us as writers?

The right words matter.

A lot of writers instinctively knew there was a mind/reading connection. The imminent Mark Twain said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Writers are told to use strong verbs and avoid clichés. Why? Because as science has borne out, the phrase “leathery hands” is more evocative than “strong hands.” Science bears this out. Evocative stories are memorable.

Each word in a story is a dot of paint. When combined in the best manner possible, the reader sees the whole image and not just a dot. Good fiction transports the reader. When her senses
are fully engaged, her brain makes no distinction between reading the story and participating in it. That's worth mentioning again: Our brains appear to make no distinction between reading an well written story and participating in it.

Ancient scribes slaved over detailed illustrations for religious texts. Early novels had artwork. Eventually the publishing houses stopped printing illustrated adult novels largely because of the cost. Picture books became the province of young children. This trend is changing. Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings has artwork at the beginning of each new chapter and some amazing maps. Scott Wegterfield’s middle grade series, Leviathan, is beautifully illustrated. Again, the map is remarkable. Both of these writers have shown that adult or near adult fiction can be profitable with illustrations. Their success makes it easier for the rest of us to press our case for illustrations. Kevin J. Anderson has novels with soundtracks, a trend that is growing. See, his interview on writing and music at:

New media like e-books expand our ability to make reading a multi-media experience. Smart writers are using this to their advantage. The old maxim “show not tell” still holds true. Science demonstrates that reading can fully engage our brain. As a writer, it is up to you to use this fact to
enrich your writing. Mark Twain was right (of course). The right word at the right time makes an indelible impression. By actively engaging the readers’ senses, you can transport them to another time and place, which is, after all, the reason they read.

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