The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: "Escaping One's Own Shadow"

In this essay, Michael Erard writes on the importance of varying the structure, tone, length, and syntax of our sentences. The essay, published in the Draft series in The New York Times, also explains the psychological basis of sentence "priming" and includes some tricks on how to avoid it. Read the full article here.


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.
 
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Read the rest of the essay here.