A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Why Good Writing Is Hard Work

by Sam McNerny, bigthink.com:
The human mind likes simplicity. It's a complicated world, so we filter it into one cohesive and easy-to-digest worldview. This perspective is a rather unscientific one, however. When we observe the world we conclude that we have a pretty good idea of how it works-- X will always cause Y-- even though this is illusionary. Sometimes, simplicity comes at the expense of accuracy.

As a philosophy student I noticed this early on. It started with Thales, who argued that water is the "principles of all things." Aristotle believed that all human action is to achieve happiness (or living-well). Foreseeing modern physics, Leibniz hypothesized that the world is comprised of elementary particles he termed monads. It was not until I read Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols that I realized these axioms were so broad that instead of accounting for everything, they accounted for nothing.

A few pieces of contemporary research confirm Montaigne's observation. One is a paper by Tania Lombrozo published in Cognitive Psychology a few years ago. In one study, Lombrozo asked participants to read hypothetical medical symptoms of aliens and possible causes and evaluate how satisfying the various possibilities were. Lombrozo found that 96 percent of participants (there were 48 total) preferred a simple "one-cause" explanation to a "two-cause" explanation. That is, compared to two conditions, a single condition that caused multiple symptoms was a more satisfying explanation of the illness, even when two conditions could account for the symptoms. This confirmed one of Lombrozo's hunches that we generally prefer simple explanations over complex ones (especially in the absence of probability information).

A possible reason for this is a psychological phenomenon called "processing fluency." As a general rule, a fluent thought feels subjectively easy to process while the opposite is true for a disfluent thought. Critically, we tend to favor things that are fluent. For example, one study discovered that people have a more positive first impression of someone with a name that is easy to pronounce (Mary Smith) compared to someone with a name that is difficult to pronounce (Xiùlán Huáng)*. Another study found that you could predict the performance of a stock a few days after it hits the market based on how easy it is to pronounce its name.

I think fluency explains why one hallmark of good writing is clarity. If written language is a window into the writer's world, then wordy prose diminishes the reader’s chance of understanding that world. Here's the rub: despite easy-to-digest principles that encourage fluent writing (e.g., "omit needless words" and "when in doubt, cut"), many writers fill page after page with verbose paragraphs much more difficult to understand, hopefully, than this one.

There are at least two reasons why....
You can read the rest of the post, "Why Writing Fluently Is Hard," here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great view on writing!