Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Writing { and reading and publishing } ~

Can Experimental Psychology Help A Writer?

Many writers attribute their abilities to metaphysical “muses”.

Neuroscience and Writing

Image Courtesy of cecilia picco ~

Many claim that nothing but massive research will give them their raw materials.

Far too many cling to what other writers tell them to do…

Perhaps, if you don’t have a clear conception of where writing ability comes from, you might listen to experimental psychologist Steven Pinker.

From his Bio:

“Much of his initial research was in visual cognition, the ability to imagine shapes, recognize faces and objects, and direct attention within the visual field. But beginning in graduate school he cultivated an interest in language, particularly language development in children, and this topic eventually took over his research activities.”

For the last few weeks, all the right media have been plugging his newest book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

An article in Time magazine talks about his book’s attack against “grammar nazis” and support for the clear writing of “classic style”, then says:

“…what really sets this book apart: the neuroscientific underpinnings of what makes some writing good and some bad, based on how our brains process language. Classic style or not, this bit takes a fair amount of work to get through. Pinker acknowledges that many very good writers get by purely on intuition, but, he says:

‘Just below the surface of these inchoate intuitions, I believe, is a tacit awareness that the writer’s goal is to encode a web of ideas into a string of words using a tree of phrases. Aspiring wordsmiths would do well to cultivate this awareness.’”

The Time article goes on to disparage Pinker’s “…sentence diagrams and technical language that runs the risk of making aspiring wordsmiths run screaming from the room.”

Since various folks are disagreeing about the value of this book, I thought it might be helpful to share a video and let Mr. Pinker explain…

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3 responses to “Can Experimental Psychology Help A Writer?

  1. Jane Watson October 9, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    I loved Stephen Pinker’s comment in the video : “..Bad writing is so costly…” What an interesting way of looking at something we take for granted. I agree with him – in an era where we email or tweet our thoughts in writing, often everyday, many of us see the consequences of not saying what we mean but do we realise this?:-) One sloppy sentence in an email can put a friendship back years or cause a major disagreement. Sometimes we blame the other person but so often I think it is simply a case of Bad Writing. We don’t teach children to say what they mean effectively in school – we teach them to make it look and sound ‘right’. Perhaps in this age we are moving away from the verbal – phone, TV, radio – back to writing – email, tweeting, texts, online messaging… etc so the ‘cost’ of not getting that right could be interesting…Let’s hope it doesn’t start too many wars!


  2. Alexander M Zoltai October 9, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    Precise and profound ideas, Jane………


  3. Pingback: A Psychologist Gets Questioned by A Novelist… | Notes from An Alien

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