Six Ways You Can Improve Your Writing with Neuroscience Insights

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Peter Barnes

Never start a sentence with 'and'.    


Imagine if you could easily improve your writing, or your students' writing, by ignoring some old rules such as the one above. And by using some writing principles from neuroscience.

A new book, The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer  contains 6 science - based guidelines you can use. It also includes some old rules that don't help at all.

The author is a university professor who wanted to give her students a way to improve their writing with insights from neuroscience data, such as eye-tracking, EEG brain scans, and fMRI neuroimaging.

Here are the 6 tips from the neuroscience insights to improve writing (my acknowedgements to for this summary)

1. Prime Your Readers

“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.”

Few of us realise this advice has its roots in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. In recent decades, researchers have discovered that priming is a form of implicit learning. By merely exposing experimental subjects to lists of random words, researchers discovered the earlier exposure triggered accurate recall a day later—even though the subjects were unaware they would be tested later on the list.

When you tell readers your purpose in the first sentences of a memo, email, or essay, you bolster their ease of comprehension and increase their recall of content later.

2. Use 'recency' to your advantage

The last item in the “Tell them” triad refers to what psychologists call recency effects, which influence our ability to remember the last items we read. Recency effects extend to both short-term and long-term memory. Readers remember final sentences in paragraphs, items in lists, and paragraphs in documents more clearly than anything else they read.

Carefully compose that call-to-action paragraph in a proposal and concluding paragraph in your next report. And that final sentence in every opening paragraph in your emails? Dedicate that sentence to whatever action you need your readers to take—and when they should do it.

3. Disappoint without destroying goodwill

You can benefit from the strength of priming and recency effects when you have to tell a reader you’re unable to meet a deadline or inform them they have not been selected for the annual excursion. How? Priming and recency effects create a “dead zone” in the middle of lists, sentences, paragraphs, and entire documents.

4. Bury bad news

You can prime the reader with a neutral opening paragraph, one with content that’s neither misleadingly encouraging or straight-to-the-point bad news. Clinical studies confirm that negative news in a first paragraph creates resistance and hostility to the rest of the message.

Start your second paragraph with a rationale for the unwelcome part of your message—the cause for the effect you’re going to explore. Then embed the most lethal content in a minor clause in the dead center of the paragraph. Close that paragraph with a neutral sentence, mentioning whatever benefits you can conjure to offer your reader.

Then craft a short, positive paragraph as your closing that’s forward-looking, maintaining your readers’ goodwill by using the document’s recency position. Your reader should get the message without getting hostile toward you.

5. Harnass cause and effect

From an evolutionary perspective, our tendency to see cause and effect everywhere is essential to our survival. When you place the rationale for a negative decision before you tell your reader the decision itself, you leverage the power of causation.

In studies dating back to the 1940s, participants invariably described footage of simple, animated squares and triangles in terms of cause and effect. Your reader is also highly susceptible to seeing causation. When you turn sentences into micro-narratives of cause and effect, you make your writing easier to read and recall.

6. Avoid passive voice 

You’ve probably already heard about the evils of passive construction: placing an outcome at the beginning of your sentence, in the grammatical subject, using a non-action verb, and generally burying the actor responsible. But English is a subject-verb-object language, and readers also expect language to obey what linguists call the iconicity assumption.

In other words, we expect the order of items in a sentence to reflect the order in which they occurred in the world. When you use passive construction, readers’ brains show more activity—and reading speed slows down, no matter how simple your content.

An example: Instead of The students’ questions are always answered by the teacher (passive voice), write The teacher always answers the students’ questions. (active voice).

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