This article is about how people’s brains make sense of what they read.
According to Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, author of “The Sense of Style,” that topic sentence helped catalyze the most important aspect of good writing.
It’s what Pinker calls an “arc of coherence.”
The truth is, our brains don’t like to work too hard, let alone when we’re reading.
The act is already effortful, and any extra work we’re assigned subtracts from our absorption and overall enjoyment of the material.
But breezy writing doesn’t have to be simplistic, just logical.
Here’s basically how writing works: Nouns revolve around verbs to push sentences (and thus ideas or plots) forward. These sentences then get strung into paragraphs. Paragraphs build sections. Sections build chapters. Chapters build a book.
These are all arcs, and good writing builds them at every turn.
If writer has done her job, the progression between arcs will feel natural. It will appear to the reader as if the ideas must fit together that way. Pinker refers to this organisation as the “coherence relation.”
Coherence relations are the glue that hold arcs together.
“A coherent text is one in which the reader always knows which coherence relation holds between one sentence and the next,” Pinker writes. Even if you don’t recognise the subtle “therefores” and “howevers” in a text, they’re there, silently guiding you to the next arc.
Writing is so hard because few people manage to accomplish even this basic requirement.
If a writer presents information in a scattered, incoherent fashion, the reader won’t be able to decipher how the argument fits together. In this way, coherence depends on more than “mechanical decisions such as keeping the topic in the subjects position and choosing appropriate connectives,” Pinker explains.
It also depends on the impressions someone gets, the gists “that build up in a reader over the course of reading many paragraphs and that depend on the author’s grasp of the text as a whole.”
How can you possibly control for a reader’s impressions? you might ask. By sticking to the logic of your story or argument. In both cases, the supreme goal of a writer is to guide the reader on a journey somewhere, taking great strides to hide the seams so that he or she can simply observe, exerting as little effort as possible.
“A coherent text is a designed object,” Pinker writes. “Like other designed objects, it comes about not by accident but by drafting a blueprint, attending to details, and maintaining a sense of harmony and balance.”
Keeping these three principles has forced my writing to improve.
Swarming ideas need to be wrangled somehow. By sorting out my thoughts ahead of time, and not while I’m doing the writing, I’m able to put one idea in front of other in a way that makes intuitive sense to the reader.
That way, by the time someone points their eyeballs at a line of text, the hard part is already over. It will feel like I am showing you something, rather than us figuring it out together.
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