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March 28, 2013

What You Read When You Write Matters

“Structural priming” is the psycholinguistic phrase for how our environment, particularly the media we expose ourselves to, influence the way we write.

. . . 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.

(The full article is worth a read, and can be found here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/escaping-ones-own-shadow-in-writing/?emc=eta1)

I write fiction that could be categorized as either contemporary women’s fiction (chick lit) or new adult fiction (fiction that bridges the recently-recognized gap between young adult and adult fiction).

Have you ever seen a sentence that uses the word “fiction” five times? Now you have.

Anyway, I read this article when my first novel was completely written but still in need of serious editing. I kept it in mind on the days when I chose to watch an episode of my beloved The Biggest Loser, read around on blogs, or check out facebook before I sat down to write. I also kept it in mind when I carved out time to read from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle—a book that contained no less than a dozen words I’d never seen before.

My writing was less inspired and less interesting on the days when I opted for the lighter diversions, things that were probably closer in tone to the thing I was writing. When I spent less time with those and more with my pal Edgar, my sentence structure was more diverse and character and plot developments came more naturally.

This is not to say that I don’t read within the genres I write in. It remains important to me to know what other authors are doing. I pay close attention to books, as well as film adaptations of books, that I imagine my manuscript would be shelved beside: At what point are secondary and tertiary characters introduced? How? How much back story does the reader get—when and how? When does the story hit its climax? How quickly are things wrapped up thereafter?

I also pay close attention to the jacket copy on books within my genres. This is the best way to learn to write a query letter: How much of the plotline is revealed? What do we know about the protagonist, the time, the place? How many secondary characters are mentioned? Which are not? How many words, total?

Moral of the story, a broader bookshelf can make for a better writer. So go hit the library today. Wander into a section you’ve never seen before. Find something that piques your interest.

And then write, write, write.

  1. Mom says:

    Crafty use of 5 x fiction…I didn’t even notice until you pointed it out! I’m going to make an effort to use the words syntactic persistence in casual conversation tomorrow and see if anyone flinches 🙂 Great points in your post
    Kassie aka “Mom”

  2. […] my sentence structure is in dialogue attributions. At various points, I favor different phrases (this might be why). A recent reorganization means some sections are culled from a couple of edits, and […]

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