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The Reader's Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer

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Have you ever found yourself re-reading the same sentence four or five times and thought 'I should get more sleep'? Are you clueless as to why one paragraph just seems to 'flow' while you simply can't recall the contents of another? Guess what: you are not alone. Even the best writers fail to grasp why their writing works. The Reader's Brain is the first science-based guide to writing, employing cutting-edge research on how our minds process written language, to ensure your writing can be read quickly, assimilated easily, and recalled precisely - exactly what we need to transform anyone into a highly effective writer. Using the 5Cs - clarity, continuity, coherence, concision, and cadence - this book combines irreverent humour with easy-to-follow principles that will make readers perceive your sentences, paragraphs, and documents to be clear, concise, and effective.

227 pages, Kindle Edition

First published June 30, 2015

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Yellowlees Douglas

2 books7 followers

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews
Profile Image for Eustacia Tan.
Author 15 books254 followers
September 3, 2015
I requested this book mainly because it held the promise of being able to make my writing better. While I won't have many opportunities to write academic papers in English (for now), there's always the chance I'll need it for my future job.

Basically, The Reader's Brain is supposed to teach you how to use the 5Cs - clarity, continuity, coherence, concision, and cadence, to write more effectively. The book contains a fair amount of research about how reading works, and provides lots of examples. There'll be an example one (normally the horrible writing), and then an example two, so the reader can see what the author means. At the end of the book is a quick grammar guide.

I admit, I skimmed the parts about reading. I'm not sure why, since that was why I got the book, but it turned out that the parts that interested me the most were probably the expert tips, since they were short and basically summarisations of what the author just said, written in a "how to apply it to writing" format.

What I learnt from the book can be summed up as: use active voice, and put what you want people to remember in the front. And make sure you vary your sentence lengths and structure. So, KISS with an addition of "mix it up now and then".

Oh, and how to identify passive voice. Basically, if you can insert the phrase "by zombies" after the verb and the sentence still makes sense, it's passive voice. So, if I'm applying this right,

"After consuming penicillin, Tim was was healed by zombies" - passive.
"The penicillin healed Tim by zombies" - active voice.

All in all, this book is a clearly written guide on how to improve your non-fiction writing. I like that lots of example were raised, and it seems be be backed up by science. It is, however, not a grammar book, despite the brief guide at the end, so think of this as for the middle-to-advanced writer.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

This review was first posted at Inside the mind of a Bibliophile
Profile Image for Vince Darcangelo.
Author 14 books21 followers
October 25, 2015

Most books on writing have the same fatal flaw: They may be inspiring and informative, but they seldom offer practical advice. Typically, you’ll get some variation of the following: write something every day; write what you know; active voice; character before plot.

Got it.

Yellowlees Douglas wants to change that with The Reader’s Brain. Drawing on science rather than Strunk and White, she offers tips on how to be a more effective writer, whether you’re penning the Great American Novel, writing a grant or constructing an internal memo.

I spent three years and thousands of dollars in an MFA program where it was bad form to talk about sentence structure. Seeing Douglas give it the attention it deserves was refreshing.

The Reader’s Brain is not just a collection of tips and tricks. Douglas provides a compelling narrative, sharing anecdotes from her years as an author and professor, to guide the reader through the chapters.

The difficulty with reviewing a book like this is that it’s hard to give details without giving away too much information. Since it’s on the book jacket, I can say that it centers around what Douglas calls the five C’s: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision and cadence. In exploring these concepts, Douglas shows how to utilize devices such as priming and causation to create narratives that capture the reader’s attention and keeps your words in their memory.

A worthy addition to any writer’s nook.
Profile Image for Sergio GRANDE.
519 reviews8 followers
June 28, 2020
No spoilers here; nothing could spoil this book any further.

I give it three stars because someone may find it as helpful as I found it useless. So it's fair to settle on the halfway mark. Fair and a little generous, I think.

Other than useless, I also found it disappointing. Wait, let me re-phrase that. I found it useless and very disappointing.

I am not a published writer -though I have written a full motion picture screenplay- but I write. My job has me writing documents that are submitted to and evaluated by very talented and ruthless professional writers. So far no one has mocked me; I assume that my writing is at least OK, then.

This is not a book to help a writer write better. Instead, this book seems intended to help those who write incomprehensible academic papers and reports and need to find their way around syntax in a manner that normal people could understand.

The writer herself could do with a few books on syntax and structure. Especially, she could do with any instruction she can get in the areas of clarity and brevity. Had she read any such material, she wouldn’t have given us gems such as:

“Readers can avoid garden path moments and cognitive overload if you make brief that gerund or infinitive phrase or noun clause which you insist on using as your grammatical subject.”

“Transitions like as a result, therefore, because, and consequently tell readers that the sentence they’ve just read caused the outcome in the sentence lying just ahead. Never underestimate the power of causal transitions, especially if you’re a lawyer, an employee arguing for a merit pay increase, or anyone crafting a contentious bit of argument. Studies of causal transitions established that they significantly increase reading speeds.13 In addition, given the central role causation plays in our perception generally, you’re also encouraging readers to follow your line of thinking, rather than pausing to argue with your connecting pizza and bubonic plague.”

“Never begin a sentence with and or but:
This edict, which teachers may have handed down to you in middle or high school, is simply wrong. Like the proclamations of the grammar mavens hung up on split infinitives – a rule derived from Latin to confer gravitas on the mongrel that is English – the ban on beginning sentences with conjunctions has two probable sources. First, coordinating conjunctions like and, or, but generally connect two major clauses. However, you won’t flummox readers encountering but at the beginning of a sentence that clearly inverts or hedges on the suppositions of the preceding sentence for the simple reason that the full stop or period preceding but tells readers the conjunction here isn’t connecting two major clauses. Instead, the conjunction merely functions as an additive or contrasting transition (See the Supplement, page 164, for the role of punctuation as a means of avoiding garden-path stumbles by disambiguating the function of words.) Second, the rule also stems from what we might think of as the training wheels effect, where well-intentioned teachers lay down principles as immutable as the Ten Commandments for seven- and eight-year-olds, then neglect to tell them that these rules were merely supposed to curb wayward behavior, like writing sentence fragments, rather than serve as guidelines for a lifetime of practice.”

And finally,

“Unfortunately, most of us aren’t aiming for the next Nobel in literature (or even favorable critical reviews savoring our prose), so glowing explanations of how writers avoid clichés, use bracingly fresh analogies, or powerful rhetorical devices like antitheses are noticeably less helpful in getting our proposals or memoranda out the door than great lashings of caffeine. At 3 am, you don’t give a shit whether you sound like Richard Dawkins at his most sparkling and original. You just want to avoid sounding like an illiterate, sleep-deprived, nine-year-old chucking together a report hours before your deadline.”

Should have read your own advice, Ms. Douglas.

These gems above are not all. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And don't let me get started talking about her fucking baseball metaphors and the endless litany of bad examples. They are boring, irritating and eventually, counterproductive. I think I’ve made my point.

Positive: Right at the end there is a decent section to help you if you have trouble discerning lay from lie or less from fewer, or you cannot remember whether quotation marks precede a full stop or follow periods.
Profile Image for Mizuki.
158 reviews
April 20, 2019
I just happened to buy this book as a paperback and it was a good idea to make easy to refer whenever I write. I don't think I can follow the principles shown in this book very well yet (even during writing this review..) but I'd like to do my best in the future writings.
I like this book because, as the author mentioned, no other books focuses in the middle of micro and macro level of writing. Especially I like the cadence part!
Also one of the encouraging things for me is, good readers can be good writers but not vise versa. I'd like to continue reading a lot of varieties of books.
Profile Image for Esra.
3 reviews2 followers
April 12, 2021
This book paves the way quiet smoothly for whom would like to practice simplicity and clearance in their writings. I think this book is well constructed with two examples of the same sentence to demonstrate which one is more comprehensible for the reader and helping writer in which choice is better to stick in writing style. Overall there are other examples included. So its content is satisfactory.
I loved the fact that it is neuroscience backed book. So scientific basis also makes reading enjoyable.
1 review
October 29, 2022
This book gave me a new understanding of the English language. It explains how to leverage basic principles to improve your writing.
Profile Image for Gio.
210 reviews19 followers
March 12, 2017
Although I'm a writer, I rarely read books about writing. I just find they give you the same repetitive (and obvious!) advice, such as write every day and avoid the passive voice like the plague. I made an exception for this book because all the tips are backed by science. By discovering how readers process the writing words, we can create texts that are easier to read, understand and enjoy.

I don't want to give away too much, so I'll just mention that Douglas' advice centres on the use of the 5Cs: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision and cadence. He provides lots of practical tips for each C as well as examples to put them in practice. While I found that most of these tips were quite common, it's good to know the science behind them (I guess there's a reason why they're so popular, after all - they work!).

Overall, it's a very practical book about writing. I especially recommend it to non-writers. There are times when everyone is asked to write something - be it a presentation, a school paper or whatever. If you don't know where to start or how to make your prose clear and concise, this book will greatly help you out.
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