The underlying purpose of everything I write is to effectively communicate a thought or idea. Sometimes I write addressing a particular audience (or potential audience) or just to recall and solidify a concept that had been only mental. However, every time I write there is one particular challenge: how do I construct a thought in the best way possible to achieve my purpose. What words should I use? what kind of vocabulary is best for this particular topic? Should I avoid technical jargon? Would I benefit from imitating the style of my favorite authors? How much revision is too much?
Over the years, Earnest Hemingway, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut and many other famous writers have offered writing advice. Their tips and admonitions go from whimsical (Mark Twain encouraging writers to substitute the word “very” for “damn”) to oddly specific (Elmore Lenard’s advice to never open the book with weather). However, most of these tips do not get to the nature of what constitutes good writing. Instead, most are just constraints that have helped them become great writers in their particular genre. These tips agree on some things (ie. they all warn against using overly descriptive language and are dismissive of the passive voice) and contradict each other on others ( ie. George Orwell’s advocacy for simplicity vs E.B White’s defense of richer language). The list is also very lengthy. There are dozens of these tips and while many are seem valuable and useful, heeding to them all would be impractical and inefficient.
I think there is a better way. Judging whether my writing has achieved the purpose of effectively communicating my message should not consist of going through the checklist subjective writing advice, but making sure my work aligns with the way humans interact with information.
Most of the tips that these famous authors give are just ways to achieve the same underlying goal; that good writing should seek to decrease cognitive strain whenever possible. Cognitive strain is the amount of effort it takes your brain to process information. Daniel Kahneman shows that the less cognitive strain a thought provokes, the more digestible it will be for the brain. There are three general principles he gives in order to minimize cognitive strain in writing:
1. Credibility Through Simplicity
A clever study done by Danny Oppenheimer shows that people find simple language more credible than complex language. Choosing the simplest word possible (especially when talking about a complex subject) increases credibility and is widely taken as a sign of superior intelligence. Now, this does not mean that there is no place for technical jargon or rich vocabulary, it just means you should only use complex words when there is no other word that would equally convey the meaning of your thought. Using a thesaurus to replace simple words with bombastic ones in order to appear more intelligent gives precisely the opposite intended effect.
This principle of credibility through simplicity not only makes sense of some of the very specific writing advice such as Elmore Leonard’s suggestion to use adjectives sparingly, or Stephens King’s hatred of adverbs, but also distills all this information to a principle based on how the human brain works.
Kahneman’s book also talks about an experiment where a group of students were given a group of aphorisms which they would rate for insightfulness. One group was given aphorisms that rhymed and the other group was given the same aphorism without the rhyme. The rhyming aphorisms showed significantly higher insightfulness scores even though the two groups of sayings were virtually identical in meaning and content. This experiment shows the principle that great authors have known for ages and have tried to encourage in their tips, form is just as important as content. There is something about how our brains read written information that associates rhyme and beautiful sounding sentences with truthfulness and validity.
Now, before we can go off and use our favorite rhymed platitude, don’t let’s forget that while rhymed phrases do sound more pleasing to the brain, their effect gets lost with constant repetition. This is why authors advice against using clichés. Phrases that were once clever and resonant quickly lose their pleasing effect the more you use them. If we are to use rhyming and assonant phrases to our advantage, they must be unknown or original.
Lastly, reducing cognitive strain not only deals with the syntax of your writing, but also the presentation. Studies show that choosing a readable font and highlighting main ideas in boldface letters reduces cognitive strain and makes a piece of writing more approachable. Granted, this principle is a cognitive bias that could be used to highlight bad ideas, but one can exploit this bias in decision-making to make sure your piece of writing achieves as much effective communication as possible.