My copy of Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey and my glasses

Rule-Quibbling and the Science of Reading

Any writer who follows blogs has seen advice that certain words “stop” your reader: adverbs, “weak” words, “filter words.” Dialogue tags other than “said.” The word “that.” The word “was.” Writers carry out search and delete missions in their documents, hunting down these toxic words. No one wants to take a chance of alienating a reader.

As some of you know, I am a self-declared rule quibbler. Not that I’m a fan of bad writing, but when I read these sermons from the blog, I wonder what evidence supports their declarations. Has anyone carried out a scientific study of reading and how readers actually process written fiction?

Book sales may be taken as an indicator of effective writing, but as most of us know, buying a book does not necessarily equal reading it or enjoying it. Maybe sales are more an indicator of effective marketing than of brilliant writing.

There are peer-reviewed academic journals on the subject: Reading Research Quarterly, for example, and the Journal of Research in Reading. From my admittedly cursory look at the sorts of articles that appear in them, the main focus of the research they publish is how people learn to read and comprehend written language, and not so much what constitutes compelling fiction.

Is there a way to quantify good writing? Do certain words bore or otherwise alienate readers? How might such a study look?

My copy of Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey and my glasses

Here’s my idea and thought process: test subjects are given two different texts of a piece of writing long enough to require a reader’s attention for more than a few minutes. A couple of thousand words, perhaps Chapter 1 of a novel. One version follows all the rules about words not to use. The other breaks them. Both texts have the same storyline, but different vocabularies.

After reading, test subjects would be asked which version of each piece would incline them to read further. But wait — would a single test subject see both samples or only one? By the time they read the second, they will have an idea of the plot, so there would be a spoiler effect. So maybe we have two stories, i.e., four different texts. Each subject gets a text from each story, one that follows the rules and one that does not. Because the stories are different, the “I’ve seen this already” effect is avoided.

But surely it would be necessary to minimize differences in reader preference? The test subjects would have to be matched with their preferred types of fiction. If a subject reacts unfavourably to the genre of the text rather than the words used, the test wouldn’t be valid. Okay, the researcher would have to interview potential subjects so the members of the subject pool would be similar to one another, in how much time they devote to reading, types of fiction preferred, etc.

Carefully devised follow-up questions would be needed to elicit and quantify the effect of specific words on individual reading experiences. Formulating questions for studies is a field of study in itself.

My conclusion: devising, carrying out, and writing up credible experiments is not a simple matter.

The closest I got to an actual study of the kind I’ve envisioned is a paper published in 1988, entitled The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure: Needs and Gratifications. It describes five different studies on different aspects of the reading experience. The two that seemed most relevant to my question examined reading speed and readers’ rankings of texts for preference, merit and difficulty. There was even a study of readers’ physiological reactions to reading different texts. Even a cursory look at this paper shows how complex and elaborate a scientific study of reading can be.

The works from which texts were obtained for testing are varied, including fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction, classics, and genre fiction. Authors include Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Louis L’Amour, Ayn Rand, Graham Greene, Hunter S. Thompson, James Michener, Ian Fleming, Essie Summers, Arthur Hailey, Joseph Conrad, Agatha Christie, and W. Somerset Maugham. The most recent publication date is 1975.

One thing I found interesting was that some of the books are labelled “trash” by the study’s author. The test subjects showed a preference for this “trash” as pleasure reading material, but at the same time they assigned higher ranks for merit to “elite” works that were harder to read. The final page of the paper shows extracts from three of the works, along with the ratings they were assigned.

Despite labelling certain books as “trash,” the study does not analyze the writing, only the test subjects’ responses to it. While the studies documented in this paper don’t answer my question, they are examples of the kind of effort needed to obtain solid data on reading, and by extension, on writing.

The paper does contain some great academic terms. One that jumped out at me is ludic reading, which means “reading for pleasure.” Books can be called “ludic vehicles.” So, fellow writers, that’s what we’re trying to do: turn our books into ludic vehicles to transport readers into realms of the imagination.

My final thought (for now): Read this blog post, which contains a short piece of fiction that deliberately breaks all kinds of writing rules. I couldn’t stop reading, which suggests the words an author uses aren’t as important as the way she or he arranges them (and a few other factors too, of course).

Is anyone aware of any scientific studies on the effectiveness of specific words on recreational reading? Is there any objective science to back up the “rules” for writers? Or is it just a matter of, “Well, everyone knows…”?

72 comments

    1. More and more I’m thinking it’s really hard to define good writing. Many of the “rules” try to do that, but don’t quite get there. It’s like that joke about art: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.”

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for this interesting post, Audrey.

    In my view, I think that what academics consider as constituting “good”, or “bad” writing, often does not marry up with what many ordinary readers view as “good” or “bad” writing.

    There are, for example, rules concerning when to utilise “which” as opposed to “that”. However, my gut instinct is that the majority of readers do not notice when “which” is (incorrectly) employed instead of “that” or, indeed the other way around.

    In my admittedly unscientific view, most readers want a book that (do I mean which)? holds their attention, and are not, on the whole greatly concerned as to whether “which” is employed rather than “that”.

    Do I hear the grammar police knocking at my door?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I won’t set the grammar police on you, Kevin. I think you’ve pretty much said it in your penultimate paragraph: if a piece of writing engages a reader, they don’t even notice those details. As for “which” and “that,” there seems to be agreement that they’re interchangeable in many situations. (“That,” by the way, is one word whose absence often improves a sentence; that’s one “rule” I don’t quibble with.)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I linked to the study I cited in the post. It’s on JSTOR. You can read the whole thing, but part of it are heavily academic. The sample excerpts at the very end are interesting. I noticed quite a few rule infractions there!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Now that I think about it, the whole fiction-writing “rules” phenomenon on blogs is like some weird version of a chain letter. Here are the rules. Give them to X number of other writers, or fire will rain down from the sky, and no one will read your book. What these blogs are presenting as rules aren’t really rules at all. They’re observations.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree, Liz. When writers start blogging, some of them (us) get sucked into creating “how to write” posts. We’re writers — what else are we going to write about? I think that leads to a lot of repetition of these dubious “rules.” I also think they emerge from people who read a LOT of writing submitted by writers for various reasons — hoping to get published or as contest entries. The readers’ purpose here is to judge and eliminate, not to enjoy. It’s inevitable that certain tics and common words become irritating in those situations. And a lot of editors have blogs that are read by writers.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I suspect most “writing rules” are in fact rules for what publishers want. And these are subject to fashion more than science. I think the writing of pretty much any famous author from the Victorian era would be instantly condemned as too wordy by modern standards. Personally, I would be more inclined to trust what (for instance) Charlotte Bronte thought was good writing over what some random literary agent thinks is good writing… but that certainly won’t be much help in attracting the eye of literary agents. πŸ™‚

    “Ludic vehicles”–a fine term indeed! Reminds me of another great term, from the world of video-gaming: “ludonarrative dissonance.”

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I saw a tweet a couple of days ago from a writer extolling his agent’s virtues. The tweet mentioned how knowledgeable the agent was about story structure and characterization and various other elements of writing, and all I saw in that tweet was a description of an agent who knows what he likes, but the last thing I want is an agent telling me how to structure a story or do all of those other things. This may be why I never get into traditional publishing. πŸ˜‰ I was spoiled by advice I heard early on in my writing “career” — there are no rules in writing, except for one. Write a good story. But then, whether or not it is good is in the eye of the beholder. Seems to me that most agents and publishers are really just gatekeepers for doing things a certain way (yes, each agent and publisher may believe in a different way, but they do each have their way).

      Liked by 5 people

      1. When agents and publishers read submissions from writers they are being gatekeepers. Not “ludic reading.” I suspect many of the “rules” we see originate in habits and word choices those folks find annoying. Someone who reads half a dozen first chapters in which a character looks in a mirror or wakes up from a dream is likely to come out with advice never to start a book that way.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. I think a lot of these rules do originate with people who read in a gatekeeping role. Fashion certainly influences what gets published.
      That’s an interesting term from gaming. I’m guessing it refers to something in a game that breaks the game’s ground rules?

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Exercising our brains on a Sunday Audrey, though all days are much the same in a pandemic! We all have a certain number of words logged in our brain, some more than others. We can’t remember them all, especially when doing crosswords, but recognise them when we are reading and hopefully know their meaning. Each of these words are acquired differently by each person. Perhaps some are words we feel at home with or that have happy connections. Do these words jump out and draw us in? Who can tell which words and how they are arranged will keep any individual reading. Or maybe the story itself just resonates and keep us reading.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If the story engages, the reader will keep reading. Exactly what combination of plot, characters, and word choices does the trick is different for each reader. Even though most readers of a piece will agree that it’s good or bad, it’s almost impossible to pin down the exact reasons. That’s why it’s impossible to write by a formula.
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Janet. I hope you’ve had a pleasant Sunday, despite starting off with this “wordy” post.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I was in a critique group once where we read our pieces to the group before they were critqued. You could see that effect there. Eventually the reading was dropped because it took too long, but with the rationale that publishers and agents wouldn’t be treated to a live reading.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I stick with grammatical rules (I had them pounded into me by my English-teacher mother), but I don’t slavishly follow any of the “rules” cited at the beginning of this article. How can you write a story without using “was”? – unless you’re writing in the present tense, and personally I avoid books written in the present tense – too gimmicky. I try to cut out unnecessary adverbs (note I said “unnecessary”) and to elimiinate “that” (as in “He knew that she was coming” – conjunction connecting two clauses) unless you’re trying to be really formal, but my main goal is to write a style that flows smoothly, with as little as possible to trip up the reader or break the reader’s concentration. So be careful with commas – some are absolutely necessary for the sense of the sentence, but what’s with this thing I see all the time on the Twitter writers’ hashtags? You’d be surprised how many people insert a comma between the subject and the verb. Where did that, come from?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I totally agree with basic grammar rules (adjusted for fiction at times). I think it’s better to develop a style by reading a lot of fiction (and nonfiction, for that matter) and unconsciously absorbing the practices used by good writers than to bone up on dubious rules. I’ve read some pieces of writing that avoid “was.” Some sentences show odd little quirks and sidesteps for the purpose of avoiding that word. It doesn’t always work.
      Commas are tricky. I can’t comment about Twitter hashtags, but I do notice things like this all the time: Renegade cop, Joe Blow, knew the game was up when… I would leave out those commas on either side of the name, but I can’t cite a rule either way.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I admit my ignorance of many grammatical terms, even though I follow most of those rules (I think). This business of commas and the appositive is interesting. In my Joe Blow example, omitting the commas in Renegade cop Joe Blow… seems right. But if you change the word order to Joe Blow, renegade cop, [does something] the commas are absolutely necessary. Maybe it’s one of those subtle differences or maybe it’s just me. Sometimes I think I should read up on grammar, especially given my fondness for questioning rules! I’ll have to read the rest of your Olde Grammarian posts.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Here’s what I think: in the sentence “Renegade cop Joe Blow knew the game was up” the subjet of the verb is really Joe Blow, not Renegade cop. “Renegade cop knew the game was up” doesn’t make sense. “Renegade cop” serves as an adjective – you could even hyphenate it. “Joe Blow, renegade cop, knew the game was up” clearly shows that Joe Blow is the subject, so “renegade cop” stands in apposition to it. Does that makes sense? (Aw, my mother would love this kind of discussion.)

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I was thinking along those lines, that the word or phrase preceding the name is doing the job of an adjective. Changing the order turns it into an appositive (which was a new term to me). Thanks for the explanation, Lorinda!

              Liked by 1 person

  6. Such an interesting discussion, Audrey! I have just a few observations: I’ve noticed (that) some “rules” of good writing seem to change over time, such as preposition use at the ends of sentences, which WAS frowned UPON. In addition, I wonder if our mode of reading might make a difference. For example, I listened to a Robert B. Parker Spenser book once time and decided (that) I would scream if the narrator said “said” one more time!!! When we’re reading silently to ourselves, I do believe the speaker tags disappear. Not so, when listening!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s an excellent point I hadn’t considered, maybe because I don’t listen to audiobooks, (I do listen to a lot of radio, though, and notice verbal quirks, accents, etc.). Maybe it was the way the narrator pronounced “said”? Sometimes a word catches your attention the wrong way and you can’t stop noticing it as you read. Sort of like a ticking clock or other ambient sound. Still, that’s something for authors to think about if they’re in the process of turning their books into audiobooks. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Becky!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. As a person who has been a huge reader all my life I don’t believe for one minute that the average reader even notices these small things. I agree that people notice if a book is badly written but take someone like H. G. Wells. He must have used the word tumultuous at least 15 times in The War of the Worlds and he does an awful lot of telling and not showing, but his book is a classic and still very popular.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree, Robbie — a reader who is engaged with a story doesn’t notice if the writer is using “was” or “that” or other words termed problematic. If the basic story and characters fail to engage, a reader may start noticing some of these details before they abandon the book, but it won’t be the word choices that make them do that.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. A double blind survey would be required. One where both the surveyists and surveyed were blind as to what was being measured and who got which variant of the survey.

    Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow has loads of examples. These days, disguising one’s research intent is critical as most recipients know they are participating in potentially landmark studies and will attempt to game the system.

    $20 to study Bias in Writing (trick them into thinking the study is about X when it’s actually about Y).
    Ten 500 word passages, five with rules, five without, randomly intermixed with trailing questions after each passage:
    1) How much bias (racial, gender, ageist, national) did you detect in the author’s words? (1-5) 5 is biased.
    2) How compelling were the author’s words? (1-5) 5 is compelling.
    3) Grade the difficulty of reading (1-5) 5 is difficult.
    4) Grade the quality of writing (1-5) 5 is high.
    5) How likely are you to continue reading (1-5) 5 is likely.

    Only the survey creators know the intent. Each question has multiple purposes.

    Would be fun to compose and administer somewhere.

    ~~~

    I’ve found that rules are for noobs, literally and intentionally. As a noob, following the rules I’ve collected has enhanced my writing no end. Now, barely past noobesence, when I sit to write and pencil in some rule-breaking words or phrase, my ruler-whipped knuckles cringe and I pause in thought: “How shall I approach this sentence?”

    That, and that alone, I believe, is the reason for rules.

    ~~~

    RE: P.H.’s rule breaking… You can’t use his prose as an example of rule breaking. He’s much too clever with characters and vernacular to write truly droll prose.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I thought you would contribute some apt suggestions, and you have. Yes, I wondered about a control group. Never thought about double blinding or test subjects gaming the results. (Mischievous creatures, humans!) But one of my points was such studies do involve work and complexity, and people who casually cite some of those rules of writing never cite anything of that sort to back up their pronouncements.
      As for noobs, I think it must be helpful if someone points out instances where certain words signal a problem in their writing and how a different word choice or sentence structure would improve the effect. But the real value would be the explanation offered by the instructor as to why a certain word is better in this place. Blanket condemnations of words without a specific context aren’t nearly as helpful.
      The piece by P.H. is a good example, though — it’s engaging and readable despite including a lot of “-ing” words and adverbs tacked onto dialogue tags. As you say, it’s the characters and their use of language that makes the piece readable.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Very thoughtful post Audrey. I am a measure suspicious of themes which are wont to tell other folk how best to write. I do not believe there are rules in this respect. There is a relationship between writer and reader, in which the writer either has to attract the reader or make an estimation as to what their targeted readership would enjoy reading.
    I would like to cite:
    1.SF writer John Scalzi who used in several short stories:
    ‘………..’ he said
    ‘…………’ she said
    ‘………..’ he said
    No elaboration of how they ‘said’ or why they ‘said’ or what else they were doing while they ‘said’
    Now while that can grate or appear quirksome, it has to pointed out the content of his short stories were still gripping, thus content has to play a major part.
    2. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Series:
    One of the major characters, despite being a grim fellow bent on a serious mission it appears could rarely stop ending a statement unless ‘he chuckled’, none of the other characters saw fit to comment on this habit. This series had a number of characters, sub-plots etc all which meshed together. So who cared if he was ‘chuckling’?
    3. Guilty secret:
    To unwind I sometimes dip into ‘romance’ and what is erroneously called ‘chick lit’, there is a great deal of ‘eye rolling’ and ‘lip pursing’ and repetition of other facial gestures, depending on the writer. Still doesn’t detract from enjoyable stories(maybe a tad predictable at times, but it’s a bit like a good murder mystery, seeing if you can guess the ending, or manner of ending)
    Thus like others here, I contend:
    ‘It don’t matter. It’s your substance that counts. And how that is received depends very much on the audience you are aiming’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points, Roger. As you say, reading is a relationship at a distance between reader and writer. Expectations and conventions are part of it. As a reader, you approach romance and cozy mysteries differently from literary classics and enjoy them in different ways. Writing and reading are complex activities. Endlessly enjoyable too!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Another thoughtful and thought-inducing post. As a reader I want a good compelling story, pacing that doesn’t put me to sleep, and well developed characters. If I have that I can ignore, to a certain extent writing errors. And what are writing errors? I want good spelling, punctuation and grammar. A little bit I can skip. That vs which is minor. Lay vs lie – I can never get that straight. And how much can I ignore? When there aren’t enough to distract me. When I start noticing these things I get disgusted with the book. I am a professional editor so maybe I notice them more than other readers. Oh but there’s another consideration for me. If the story is bad (pacing, plot, etc.) I notice error much more than I ever do if the writing is good.

    That’s a long winded way of saying, “It’s subjective.” Considering I came to that conclusion using my own personal experience that just “proves” the point. ….. ha ha ha ha. I crack myself up.

    πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It looks like you’ve followed the same thought process as I have, JeanMarie! I read both for fun and as part of a critique group, so I probably notice some of these word choice situations more than purely recreational readers.
      ” If the story is bad (pacing, plot, etc.) I notice error much more than I ever do if the writing is good.” You’ve said it! Right there is why there’s more to good writing than following rules.
      Laughing along with you… πŸ˜ƒ

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What a great discussion! I think of the rules on ‘that’ and ‘was’ and weak words as advisories rather than rules. Sometimes a ‘that’ is necessary to make the writing clear, but the unnecessary ones seem to slow down a sentence. Personal style, though, might make it work just fine. Early on, someone I worked with who was a skilled writer told me I used too many participles. Often I was writing (see? that’s what I did) those participles with ‘was’ and ‘were’. So I guess I’ve always had a ‘was’ problem. In any case, I always appreciated that advice, and I still have to check my work for participles. Anyhow, thanks for an interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, they are more like advisories or guidelines rather than rules. I was stretching the meaning a bit. Some blog posts make it clear that judgment and leeway are in order when deciding whether to delete or replace one of those words. With experience, writers come to recognize what situations need adjustment. I’m glad you found the post interesting, and thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. In my previous life, I was a teacher, so what I am about to say may seem odd. “Some rules are meant to be broken.” Writing is like any other creative endeavor. When it comes to opinions, we’re all right. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me a book or movie is fabulous, and fifteen minutes in, I’m ready to kick it to the curb. The same thing sometimes happens with things that aren’t critically acclaimed.

    To use another analogy, what if I detest steak? It’s unlikely that I’m going to conclude, “This meat is fantastic!” I think we get into trouble when we put everything into a prescribed rule box.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Pete, for the reminder that appreciation of artistic endeavours involves subjectivity. That suggests it’s likely impossible to quantify good writing. Statistics may be assembled and cited, but each reader will have their own opinion. Thanks for contributing to this discussion!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. what an interesting post! i love how organized these writing rules are, definitely helped a lot! thank you very much for sharing this wonderful and useful post with us, have a great day!

    I am also planning on writing my own book about my sister’s journey fighting brain cancer and how i grew up with a sense of fear and hope towards her bittersweet experience, so stay tuned for that if interested!☺️ Thanks again for this lovely post!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. lol – Hail fellow Rebel. πŸ™‚ Reading through your research, it struck me that what we need is a huge double blind experiment with volunteers divided into subjects and controls, but neither the volunteers nor the experimenters would know who belonged to which group until the experiment was over. Then both groups would be given a series of texts [of all genres] with or without the no-no words. Their reading would be timed as a measure of ‘interest’. At the end of the experiment you’d have to control for genre preferences and age etc to eliminate all variables other than word choice…

    Ahem, sorry, but it’s a rather exciting idea. πŸ˜€

    Liked by 2 people

  15. What a wonderful post! Thanks for writing it! My 2 cents: I think every era has writing conventions, those rules that say “it’s best done this way” that a critic etc tells other writers if the same era. But when one reads widely from different era’s it’s fairly easy to see this is merely a shared habit of a time period. One time period breaks all the conventional habits of another. I read “rules” and may try following for a bit: if it helps me keep writing enthusiasm I’ll keep the rule if not out the rule goes! Life is too short. A quote I have thumbtacked to my studio wall says “make your art. and while other people are deciding whether or not they like it, whether or not you’re following the rules, get busy and make more art!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get the feeling visual artists have been more daring in breaking rules and conventions than writers. One problem with guidelines presented as rules of the “You have to do it this way or fail” sort is that some talented writers just starting out may be discouraged. On the other hand, everyone has to learn the fundamentals before they start messing around.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Damn right! I have to admit I would find it hard to get back into the submit-and-wait mindset. We authors can now offer our creations to the world having made them as close to perfect as we choose and are able.

          Like

      1. The best ary teachers I had all began each class with a variation of this message “this method I’ll teach you is not the only method, it’s possible that it’s not even the best method, but it’s the method I know and have had success with. So for the duration of this class we’re doing things this way…” It instilled fundamentals of a skill while being strict (or fundamentalist) or slavish to a rule. I learned things that have stood the test of time from them.

        I did have a few teachers who were very strict about rules and very dictatorial in their teaching style – I didn’t learn much art technique in their classes. Much of what they taught didn’t last.

        So, yes, I think you’re correct- the visual arts are generally more daring, and this how to navigate “the rules” is taught to new artists.

        I wish to give new writers the gifts I got from the teachers who framed “the rules” as temporary guidelines only.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Writers who are learning by doing and finding guidelines on the internet can benefit by some face-to-face instruction, or at least insights from a critique group, should they be lucky enough to find a good one.

          Like

  16. I’ve always written just as I speak, even when I worked as a newspaper columnist. Readers seemed to enjoy the conversation. I continue doing so with my blog. Love writing just for fun AND without editors, and with readers responses. All just for fun…..

    Liked by 1 person

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