Writing and the Brain II

In my last post, I said that the brain works in mysterious ways to shape all our experiences and actions. Today I want to follow up with a story (one of my favorites) about the workings of the brain, and then I’m going to talk about writing.

Two men were walking along Fifth Avenue in New York City. One was an ornithologist (a scientist who studies birds). The other was a businessman. Fifth Avenue is one of the busiest streets in the world, and the men were surrounded by urban noise: engines humming, horns blowing, people talking, feet clattering, brakes screeching.

Suddenly the ornithologist stopped. “That sounds like a wooded warbler,” he said. “I wonder how it got here.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” his friend said. “There’s no way you could hear a bird – much less identify it – in all this noise.”

The ornithologist reached into his pocket and dropped a quarter on the sidewalk. Instantly about 30 people stopped to look down at their feet.

The point, of course, is that long years of study had instilled complex bird-related software into that ornithologist’s brain. In the same way, long years of handling dollar bills and loose change had instilled complex money-related software into the brains of the other New Yorkers on that sidewalk. (Have you ever noticed that even people who swear they’re hopeless at math can calculate discounts in their heads – and always know how much change is due after a purchase?)

So let’s talk about the language software inside our brains.

If you grew up speaking English, you had a vast amount of English language software installed in your head by the time you entered kindergarten – and it continued to become larger and more complex as you grew older.

But there’s a problem: most of the software in our heads is related to talking. And so, when students sit down to write a high school or college essay, they tend to fall into their familiar speaking patterns – with disastrous results. “I guess I’m just not a writer,” they think. They’re dead wrong. The problem is that they haven’t yet made the transition from conversational English to formal writing. To put it another way: they haven’t yet developed the software needed to be effective writers.

Think for a moment about all the ways that talking is different from writing:

  • Casual conversations don’t require punctuation.
  • You don’t have to worry about homophones (sound-alike words like your/you’re and rain/rein/reign).
  • You’re allowed to jump from topic to topic.
  • Sentence fragments are ok.
  • You don’t have to formally introduce an idea and then develop it with examples.
  • You can repeat a familiar word as many times as you like.
  • You can use regional and colloquial words and expressions.

Most important, conversation doesn’t allow do-overs. Once you’ve said it, it’s out of your control.

Avid readers have two huge advantages. First, they quickly develop additional software for writing. Without realizing what’s happening, readers gradually master complex sentence patterns, punctuation rules, sophisticated vocabulary words, and systems for organizing ideas. Second, they feel empowered to make changes in what they write. There’s always a sentence that can be improved, an idea that can be sharpened, a mistake that can be corrected. Non-readers, by contrast, often feel helpless when they’re faced with a writing task. They write as quickly as possible and hand in their work without checking it over. 

* * * * * *

Last month I conducted a grammar workshop for an enthusiastic group of people who work for a local government agency. One participant told me she’d had an English teacher who required her students to memorize all the forms of the verb to be: am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being.

Sigh. How is reciting that string of words going to make anyone a better writer? The time spent drilling those words into students’ heads – and memorizing other grammatical jargon – would have been much better spent on reading (or writing!).

If you’re a teacher, what are some strategies you could use to empower your students to feel empowered – and to build on the language software already installed in their heads?

If you’re a parent, what are some strategies you can use with your children?

If you’re a writer, what are some strategies you can use on your own?

Be creative, and have fun!

                                   Wooded Warbler

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