Episode 97 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with writer Rob Ashton. Rob founded the global learning company Emphasis, and over the last six years, has focused on researching the science of how the things we read and write influence what we think and do. In this conversation, we discussed how science can make us make more effective writers.
I started by asking Rob about the relevance of writing today, given the fact many people don’t read books anymore. But of course, books aren’t the only form of writing. Many of us communicate today using online messaging and email, which consist of written words. What’s different about these media and books is their length and the latency between sending a message and receiving a response. (I.e., whereas the feedback loop for books is very long, chats can be almost synchronous.) As Rob put it, “it’s not that writing has died out. It’s the opposite: we’ve become reliant on it.”
We then discussed the way our brains interpret writing. It’s not that we’ve evolved to use writing; there hasn’t been enough time. Rather, we’ve adapted to the medium. Rob explained,
something that we take for granted that the brain is seeing dots and squiggles… or the eye seeing dots and squiggles on a screen or on a page, and the brain is converting that into a voice in our head. And that in itself is a miracle of adaptation. A miracle of adaptation, not of evolution. And that’s a critical distinction.
In particular, our senses perceive a limited amount of information, and our brains fill in the blanks.
There’s ten times as much information coming from the brain as is coming from the eyes when we look at things. And that’s because the structure of the eye is not capable of taking in all of the information that’s there.
So, when we’re reading, we are, for a start, focusing on very, very fine points. You know, very small chunks of text, and we’re kind of hopping along each sentence, is what the eye does. These jumps are called saccades. We’ve got this illusion of fluency and this kind of fluid movement. That’s not true. And we are looking at what’s there, but what the brain is doing is crosschecking. It’s called predictive coding, and it’s crosschecking. It’s not seeing what’s there; it’s seeing if what’s there is different from what it expected to see.
And that’s why we often don’t spot our own mistakes. It’s why we miss our biggest typos. That, and the fact that you can write something in 30-point type and it’s too big for you to see the word, for it to fit into that very, very narrow window I described. And we see what’s there. You know, our emotions color what we’re reading. You’re writing an instruction; you think it’s a really clear instruction. And then people don’t follow it, and you think, “Why did they not follow it? I made it really clear. I made it really simple!” Because they had a different voice in their head, and they were seeing what they expected to see, not what was really there.
This can lead to various heuristic biases creeping in, leading to misunderstandings. The key question is: what can you do to make your writing as understandable as possible? The answer will likely resonate if you’re familiar with design: you must understand your readers — who they are, what they know and don’t know, etc.
Given that I’m writing a book, I found this conversation with Rob especially valuable. But I suspect you’ll find something useful here if you do any kind of writing — which we all do, all the time.