Thursday, June 15, 2023

Good Science Writing Tips from HBR

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“Keep it simple.” This classic piece of writing advice stands on the most basic neuroscience research. Simplicity increases what scientists call the brain’s “processing fluency.” Short sentences, familiar words, and clean syntax ensure that the reader doesn’t have to exert too much brainpower to understand your meaning.


Specifics awaken a swath of brain circuits. Think of “pelican” versus “bird.” Or “wipe” versus “clean.” In one study, the more-specific words in those pairs activated more neurons in the visual and motor-strip parts of the brain than did the general ones, which means they caused the brain to process meaning more robustly.


Our brains are wired to make nonstop predictions, including guessing the next word in every line of text. If your writing confirms the readers’ guess, that’s OK, though possibly a yawner. Surprise can make your message stick, helping readers learn and retain information.

Stirring Language

You may think you’re more likely to persuade with logic, but no. Our brains process the emotional connotations of a word within 200 milliseconds of reading it—much faster than we understand its meaning. So when we read emotionally charged material, we reflexively react with feelings—fear, joy, awe, disgust, and so forth—because our brains have been trained since hunter-gatherer times to respond that way. Reason follows. We then combine the immediate feeling and subsequent thought to create meaning.


As humans, we’re wired to savor an­tic­ipation. One famous study showed that people are often happier planning a vacation than they are after taking one. Scientists call the reward “anticipatory utility.” You can build up the same sort of excitement when you structure your writing. In experiments using poetry, researchers found that readers’ reward circuitry reached peak firing several seconds before the high points of emphatic lines and stanzas. Brain images show preemptive spikes of pleasure even in readers with no previous interest in poetry.

Smart Thinking

Making people feel smart—giving them an “aha” moment—is another way to please readers. To show how these sudden “pops” of insight activate the brain, researchers have asked people to read three words (for example, “house,” “bark,” and “apple”) and then identify a fourth word that relates to all three, while MRI machines and EEGs record their brain activity. When the study participants arrive at a solution (“tree”), brain regions near the right temple light up, and so do parts of the reward circuit in the prefrontal cortex and midbrain. The readers’ delight is visible. Psychological research also reveals how people feel after such moments: at ease, certain, and—most of all—happy.

Social Content

Our brains are wired to crave human connection—even in what we read. Consider a study of readers’ responses to different kinds of literary excerpts: some with vivid descriptions of people or their thoughts, and others without such a focus. The passages that included people activated the areas of participants’ brains that interpret social signals, which in turn triggered their reward circuits.


Few things beat a good anecdote. Stories, even fragments of them, captivate extensive portions of readers’ brains in part because they combine many of the elements I’ve described already

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