Looking into one of my College’s hallway recycling bins, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.
In her new book, The Reader’s Brain, Professor Yellowlees Douglas explains Strunk & White. That is, she explains why some of their guidelines work, and why others might need revision.
I am one of many fans of guides to good writing. Lord knows I need them. And Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (1918) is one of my favorites. It has become somewhat of the bible of guides to writing in the English language. Professor Douglas’ book is a guide to writing, but one that is so different from any that have come before.
Yellowlees Douglas has been a student and teacher of writing, such as in teaching people how to write anything from technical reports and proposals to novels. But this book is not a simple compilation of her views on best practices. Instead, it is an incredibly valuable distillation of decades of research in the social, psychological and neurosciences about how people read, such as how people process different types of prose. How does a style or approach to writing relate to how hard a reader must work, or how much they will recall?
She then takes these lessons learned from the study of readers to explain why some rules work, and others do not. In addition, Professor Douglas takes what she has learned to offer a number of very useful guides to writers, anchored in what she calls her five C’s: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision, and cadence. If you think these categories are commonsense, you will be pleasantly surprised when you dig into each in more detail, such as her critical perspective on ‘textual analytics’ as useful guides to readability (pages 11-17). And there are some cross-cutting themes, like the importance of prediction – the degree that readers are constantly trying to predict what comes next, and how you can help them.
In such ways, Yellowlees Douglas not only tells writers what they should do, but also explains why, based on studies of the reader or user. As Professor Douglas (2015: 7) notes:
“The connections seem obvious between what neuroscientists and psycholinguists have learned about the reading brain and what writers need to know when they sit down with a blank page. Yet the science of reading and the teaching of writing end up as two conversations conducted in parallel – different audiences, tuned to entirely different channels.”
Professor Douglas does a wonderful job in connecting these two conversations, while also being a gifted writer, who entertains as she teaches us how to write and why.
I crossed paths with the author in 1993, when I was directing the UK’s national Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) in the UK. I was based office at Brunel University, where Professor Douglas was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology (CRICT). At that time, she was looking at how people read hypertext novels. Surprisingly, I thought, she found that readers did not read them as intended by their writers, but in more linear ways. Her work impressed me as an example of how you cannot assume that readers will follow along with the designs of the writer. Overtime, readers might well have become more comfortable with nonlinear hypertext paths through text online, but these are the kinds of issues that scholars like Professor Douglas can help us understand.
Yellowlees Douglas. (2015), The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.