Before we get started, you should know this about me: I’ve written short stories, news articles, essays, reviews and a couple of nonfiction books. In pursuit of my ambitions, I’ve put in long hours of reading, writing and rewriting. But because life unfolds the way life does, I also have a day job as a think tank researcher, where I spend about half of my time writing or reading in genres and styles that are — how can I put this? — less juicy than the ones I practice and aspire to produce.
I’m a dancer who walks for a living.
On any given day, I work a span of genres, stylistic choices and ambitions, range of effects, sentence lengths, word choices. Recently, I was writing a report on some research, and here’s a sentence from the introduction: The defining features of a good metaphor become acutely important for discussions of the metaphorical effects on reasoning and understanding of social policy issues. And then, that evening, I was working on a draft of this piece, an essay I am free to open with Before we get started and in which I can write sentences like I’m a dancer who walks for a living and expect they will survive revisions.
What is the relationship between these two parts of a writing life? Does the walking build the dancing? Or does it inhibit dancing?
At one level, mastering the requirements of a couple of genres and putting yourself in the heads of different types of readers builds powerful linguistic muscles. Do walking and dancing make you understand how your body moves? Of course. Increase your stamina? Yes.
At another level, your dancing will always resemble your walking, because your brain’s activity in one part of the day shapes it in another, especially when it comes to creating sentences. This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it “structural priming” or “syntactic persistence.” Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically. Our tendency to say the same sorts of sentences as those around us was first studied by someone looking at, of all things, walkie-talkie conversations between burglars. Our words and sentence patterns are also primed in the same way, such that the words we chose are the words we will choose later.
If I write Kevin gave Sally a pen, I’m more likely later to write John sent Tim the files than I am to write John sent the files to Tim.
Given structural priming and its strength, writing advice has to take a different form, because you don’t produce sentences in a vacuum. There are always previous influences that you, the writer, can’t consciously acknowledge. And yet you must. Being an expert writer isn’t just about forming the technical guts of a good sentence. It’s also about figuring out how to hew serviceable planks in one set of tasks and then, in other duties, build syntactic confections that don’t taste like wood. Or vice versa.
Each time you sit down to write, you should cleanse your linguistic palate by reading some things that are vastly unlike what you’ve been writing. I like to page through Virginia Tufte’s “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style,” which is a catalog of the flexibility of the English sentence. As a warm-up activity, you might try actively imitating a writing style different from your own. It’s hard to do and highly unpriming.
Also, it’s imperative that you shut off the Web and don’t look at e-mail while you’re writing. Each time you look at Facebook or Twitter, you get primed with another kind of language, whether it’s your friends’ or your own. But maybe you want to write like you tweet. In that case, prime away.
For ideas about other antidotes to priming, I asked Mike Kaschak, a psychologist at Florida State University who has done a lot of work on structural priming. “I would think that priming between contexts of writing will be stronger when … you are laying down a draft of your writing quickly, and a lot of your choices are being made ‘automatically’ or unselfconsciously,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The antidote would be to evaluate what is being written more consciously, whether when writing the first draft or editing.”
This sort of style monitoring might be achieved with technology, suggested another expert, Ron Kellogg, a Saint Louis University professor who studies the psychology of writing. “One intriguing possibility,” he wrote to me, “would be to use text analysis software to detect the sentence structure and other linguistic markers of a particular style and then provide warnings to the writer.” Mr. Kellogg also suggested putting something in your physical environment “to prompt the writer to reflect on the audience and to inhibit the well-practiced ‘day style’ in favor of ‘a literary style.’”
Here are some other pieces of advice I’ve extrapolated:
• When you write poetry, write it in the same physical space each time. Don’t do it in the same place you do your copy-editing because context can reinforce the priming effects.
• Less frequent sentence patterns are more strongly priming. It may be harder to be a poet who occasionally writes a report than it is to be a report writer who moonlights in poetry.
Priming is powerful because it’s invisible and you can’t know you’re subject to it. Yet it drives why we find pleasure in reading: because you get to encounter language forms that play with (and sometimes depart from) what we’ve been primed to expect. I was reminded of that recently in Michael Cunningham’s New Yorker book blog description of being on the Pulitzer committee, in which he praised the writers who were “finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years.”
It’s not quite as easy, though, as simply doing “new” and “mesmerizing” things with the same old words. The challenge that structural priming poses to writers is that you can’t deviate from what’s expected by your readers so completely that you produce a sentence they can’t read. The British linguist Michael Hoey acknowledged as much in his groundbreaking book on recurring strings of words in the English language: “Even when writers are straining at the limits of what a language is capable of expressing, they make use of more of their primings than they reject. A sentence that overrode all of its reader’s primings … would not correspond to anything recognizable as an instance of language in use.”
We might say that if people didn’t walk, they wouldn’t recognize dancing when they saw it.