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09 AUGUST, 2012

Several Short Sentences About Writing

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“You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences. How long is a good idea?”

“If there is a magic in story writing,” admonished Henry Miller, “and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” And yet, famous advice on writing abounds.

In Several Short Sentences About Writing (public library), author and New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg does away with much of the traditional wisdom on writing and dissects the sentence — its structure, its intention, its semantic craftsmanship — to deliver a new, useful, and direct guide to the art of storytelling.

Klinkenborg writes in the introduction:

Like most received wisdom, what people think they know about writing works in subtle, subterranean ways. For some reason, we seem to believe most strongly in the stuff that gets into our heads without our knowing or remembering how it got there. What we think we know bout writing sounds plausible. It confirms our generally false ideas about creativity and genius. But none of this means it’s true.

[…]

Unlearning what I learned in college — teaching myself to write well — is the basis of what I know. So is a lifetime of reading and a love of language.

[…]

This is a book full of starting points. Perhaps they’ll help you find enough clarity in your own mind and your own writing to discover what it means to write. I don’t mean ‘write the way I do’ or ‘write the way they do.’ I mean ‘write the way you do.’

A short sampling of advice:

Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.

There are innumerable ways to write badly.
The usual way is making sentences that don’t say what you think they do.

The only link between you and the reader is the sentence you’re making.

You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.

These assumptions are prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.
Distrust them.

Speaking to the power of ignorance and the negative space of knowledge:

What you don’t know about writing is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to grasp.
Try to discern the shape of what you don’t know and why you don’t know it,
Whenever you get a glimpse of your ignorance.
Don’t fear it or be embarrassed by it.
Acknowledge it.
What you don’t know and why you don’t know it are information too.

Complementing E. B. White’s case against absolutism when it comes to brevity and length:

You can say smart, interesting, complicated things using short sentences.
How long is a good idea?
Does it become less good if it’s expressed in two sentences instead of one?

[…]

There’s nothing wrong with well-made, strongly constructed, purposeful long sentences.
But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness.
They’re pasted together with false syntax.
And rely on words like ‘with’ and ‘as’ to lengthen the sentence.
They’re short on verbs, weak in syntactic vigor,
Full of floating, unattached phrases, often out of position.
And worse — the end of the sentence commonly forgets its beginning,
As if the sentence were a long, weary road to the wrong place.

[…]

Writing short sentences will help you write strong, balanced sentences of any length.
Strong, lengthy sentences are really just strong, short sentences joined in various ways.

Klinkenborg synthesizes our arsenal of writing thusly:

  1. What you’ve been taught.
  2. What you assume is true because you’ve heard it repeated by others.
  3. What you feel, no matter how subtle.
  4. What you don’t know.
  5. What you learn from your own experience.

These are the ways we know nearly everything about the world around us.

Unusual and unusually useful, Several Short Sentences About Writing comes as a fine addition to these essential books on how to write better.

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09 AUGUST, 2012

Introducing Literary Jukebox: Daily Book Quote Matched with a Song

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An experiment in cross-pollinating the arts.

As a lover of both literature and music, I frequently find myself immersed in a passage, with a conceptually related song beginning to play in my mind’s ear. I recently started making such matches more consciously and was quickly drawn into a highly addictive exercise in creative intersections and associations. So I decided to make a little side project out of it. Enter Literary Jukebox, a minimalist site where I match a passage from a favorite book with a thematically related song each day. Sometimes, the connections will be fairly obvious. Other times, they might be more esoteric and require some reflection. Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy — I certainly am.

Many thanks to the talented Josh Boston for designing the identity and to Debbie Millman for in part inspiring the project.

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09 AUGUST, 2012

Why Success Breeds Success: The Science of “The Winner Effect”

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Biochemistry and the self-reinforcing upward spiral of winning.

The past century of science has demonstrated the pivotal role of biochemistry in such human phenomena as love, attraction, and lust. But to consider that individual neurobiology might impact things as rational and complex as, say, stock markets seems rather radical. Yet that’s precisely what trader-turned-neuroscientist John Coates explores in The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust (public library) — an ambitious look at how body chemistry affects high-stakes financial trading, in which Coates sets out to construct — and deconstruct — a “universal biology of risk-taking.”

One particularly fascinating aspect of risk-taking has to do with what is known as “the winner effect,” a self-reinforcing osmosis of the two key hormones driving the biochemistry of success and failure — testosterone, which Coates calls “the hormone of economic bubbles,” and cortisol, “the hormone of economic busts.” In traders — as in athletes, and in the rest of us mere mortals when faced with analogous circumstances — testosterone rises sharply and durably during financial booms, inducing a state of risk-seeking euphoria and providing a positive feedback loop in which success itself provides a competitive advantage. By contrast, the stress hormone cortisol spikes during financial downturns; traders with sustained high levels of cortisol become more risk-averse and timid, ultimately being less competitive.

Coates explains:

The euphoria, overconfidence and heightened appetite for risk that grip traders during a bull market may result from a phenomenon known in biology as the ‘winner effect.’

[…]

Biologists studying animals in the field had noticed that an animal winning a fight or a competition for turf was more likely to win its next fight. This phenomenon had been observed in a large number of species. Such a finding raised the possibility that the mere act of winning contributes to further wins. But before biologists could draw such a conclusion they had to consider a number of alternative explanations. For example, maybe an animal keeps winning simply because it is physically larger than its rivals. To rule out possibilities such as this, biologists constructed controlled experiments in which they pitted animals that were equally matched in size, or rather that were equally matched in what is called ‘resource holding potential,’ in other words the total physical resources — muscular, metabolic, cardiovascular — an animal can draw on in an all-out fight. They also controlled for motivations, because a small, hungry animal eating a carcass can successfully chase off a larger, well-fed animal. Yet even when animals were evenly matched for size (or resources) and motivation, a pure winner effect nonetheless emerged.

An intriguing correlation, certainly, but what is the causal mechanism at work? Scientists have suggested that there are several elements at play: First, testosterone levels rise when animals face off, producing anabolic effects on muscle mass and hemoglobin, quickening reactions, improving visual acuity, and increasing the animal’s persistence and fearlessness. Then, once the fight is over, the winning animal emerges with even higher levels of testosterone, and the loser with lower ones. Coates sums it up thusly:

Life for the winner is more glorious. It enters the next round of competition with already elevated testosterone levels, and this androgenic priming gives it an edge that increases its chances of winning yet again. Through this process an animal can be drawn into a positive-feedback lop, in which victory leads to raised testosterone levels which in turn leads to further victory.

So does this winner effect also occur in humans? Coates thinks so. He cites a study, in which researchers rigorously examined a database of 630,000 professional tennis matches and found that the winner of the first set had a 60% chance of winning the second one and, since the win in these matches comes down to the best of three sets, winning the match itself. (Anecdotally, a quick glance at Michael Phelps’s Olympic scorecard would suggest a similar conclusion.)

The precompetitive surge in testosterone has been documented in a number of sports, such as tennis, wrestling and hockey, as well as in less physical competitions, such as chess, even medical exams. Winning athletes in sports experience a postgame spike in testosterone, suggesting that a positive-feedback loop is indeed the physiological substrate to winning and losing streaks. Incidentally, these testosterone-driven sporting victories appear to be more common when an athlete is on home turf, the so-called home-field advantage. Athletes on a winning streak may thus have a very different body chemistry than those on a losing streak. IN all these experiments, with both animals and humans, the winners experienced a self-reinforcing upward spiral of testosterone.

Tying the research back to the human condition itself, Coates puts it rather poetically:

We hold the keys to victory within us, but usually cannot find them.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf goes on to examine how this intricate exchange of information between body and brain coalesces into what we call “gut feelings,” reminding us that we are, after all, remarkable and complicated machines.

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