How Our Brain Processes Written Words

I watched Abbiee Emmons’ YouTube video about narrative pacing the other day (she has a lot of great writing tips on her channel), in which she explains how the rate at which your brain processes each written word affects the pace of your writing. This is because while reading, your conscious mind takes in each bit of information one word at a time. How we experience written information is much different from how we experience visual information in daily life.

In daily life, information that remains unchanged eventually becomes invisible. For example, I don’t notice my living room every morning when I come down the stairs or my kitchen. But in writing, every word I read is handled by my conscious mind. So, if I were reading about my kitchen and came across a sentence describing the placement, color, and size of my coffee maker, I’d be forced to consciously think about my coffee maker (for no reason!) when I normally ignore these details.

Coming across how our brains process words got me thinking about heuristics, which is a mental shortcut in which people imprint and label observations and behaviors, allowing people to solve problems and make judgments quickly. Heuristics explain how I no longer notice the details of the piano in my living room because my ability to create a mental shortcut quickly glosses over the scene and says, “check!” when there is no change from the day before. Of course, heuristics lead to cognitive bias and a failure to notice new, but subtle information, especially when engaged in a task like the Invisible Gorilla experiment shows.

So, don’t bog down your writing with details your readers don’t need. Don’t force your reader to think about the information that doesn’t matter. Don’t repeat yourself, like I have here! Convey your ideas by creating mental shortcuts for easy details so your reader can ruminate on the important stuff.