Psychology of reading and writing: recalling vs. recognizing.

In a previous post, I mentioned I believe the usual advice given to writers (or, rather, to people who want to write) may not be that good, if not downright useless. And if one wants to be controversial, you might as well start with a big bang:

Read a lot. Reading will make you a better writer,” or variations of the same. It seems logical, common-sensical. But if you think about it, it’s a bit like saying that if you want to be a good musician, you should listen to a lot of music, or look at many paintings if you want to be a painter. A kind of craftsmanship by osmosis.

Of course, musicians listen to music, and painters look at the works of other people, but we know it’s not enough to do that to become skilled in their domains. But many people find it harder to accept that it may also apply to writing. And a good example would the people who may have read thousands of books and then decide to try their luck writing something. And they fail. Either it sucks or can’t get past the first page. Then they believe they lack talent or something like that, because, after all, they should have been good at it since they have been reading all their life.

No, it’s just that it was, literally, the first time you tried writing anything. Of course you didn’t succeed. If there’s a correlation between reading and writing skill, it’s probably weaker than we suspect, and most likely mediated by other factors.

It’s true that many great writers were voracious readers, which is probably from where the advice comes from, but they shared three unique traits: they started very young, usually reading material most people would have considered inappropriate for their age, and they read mostly what we would consider “classics.” Also, I suspect they read differently than most people, in a more active way. So, quantity, quality, and way of reading, not just quantity.

There’s also another obvious fact that should cast doubt on the “read a lot!” assumption. Massive reading is a modern phenomenon. In the England of the XV century, the greatest libraries may have had 400 books or so, and almost all religious. And the people we consider classic authors had, in many cases, a reduced range of material available to read because, quite simply, there wasn’t that much stuff to read or it was too expensive anyway. But I’m sure they got the most of what they got.

And there’s an even more fundamental reason. Reading and writing are different psychological processes. Reading is basically recognizing words or remembering their meaning. Writing is, at the most elemental level, about recalling words. Reading is just like one of those vocabulary tests where they ask you if you recognize a word. Writing is more like someone giving you a definition, and you have to know which word it is, and they don’t even give you A, B, C, or D alternatives. The first one barely demands any mental effort, the second is more tiresome, harder, and quite exhausting.

Try this: in one minute, write as many words meaning “attack” (as in “they attacked them with the intent to harm/kill them”) as you can.





How many? Not many I presume.

This is my list. It took me around 25 seconds:

Attack, assail, assault, charge, descend on, gang on, jump on, raid, rush, storm, swarm, strike.

I’m quite sure that you recognize those words, that if you read them inside a sentence, you’d know what they mean (that someone is being attacked.) So you’re a good “reader,” you recognize the words, but that skill doesn’t necessarily translate into recalling them in their appropriate context. And how did I manage to write them all in such a short time? Simple, because I know them from memory (note that they are in alphabetic order — not a coincidence.) It’s a list of words I know from memory. It’s active memorization, either because you consciously memorize them, or because you use them so much, that they basically become second nature to you.

I’m not saying that you should memorize a whole dictionary (unless you can do that, in which case, go for it,) but you should at least be aware that the difficulties you may have when writing are a matter of word accessibility, not availability. Also, while I’m at it, what many people call “writer’s block” is, among other things, an anxiety problem caused or compounded by accessibility problem.

That’s a distinction from psychology. Something available means that it is in your memory, somewhere. Accessibility means your ability to recall it, consciously. The average person may have something like 20 000 words available in his memory (and voracious readers more than 30 000,) but the ability to access, quickly and precisely, and when needed, to that huge thesaurus, is much poorer. That means that the range of words you use in real life is much smaller, and I’d be surprised if a normal person uses more than 4 000. So, if you want to become a better writer (or speaker, thinker, con artist or whatever it is you do with words) you may need to improve your availability/accessibility ratio.

Also, here’s a shorter explanation of what it means to have a word available somewhere inside your atrophied brain but not accessible at the moment:

Now, everybody knows painters, musicians, and other artists have exercises, things they practice to get better. But apparently, writers are still considered people who do nothing at all and just have to wait for inspiration… and sure, there’s something to that, and more than in the other arts, but come on, if you saw a draughtsman struggle to draw the simplest shape of his art or style, you’d assume there’s something wrong with his skill. However, writers struggling to put word after word is, somehow, seen as a sign of… quality? It’s not. The better you are at something, the easier it gets, and the faster you should become. Again, look at my example with words clustering around the concept of “attack.” I was better AND quicker. And that’s what writers work with: words and sentences, like artists work with line, color, and shadow.

So, if you find yourself struggling with a text (or an empty page,) and assuming it’s not simply a matter of lack of ideas, the problem is probably that there’s a gap between your mental image and your ability to recall the concepts that better express it. So fix that. Again, I’m not saying you should memorize a dictionary, and all writers specialize anyway, which means that you should be able to recall, in a few seconds at most, the words of your particular “genre” or linguistic family/domain (like the “attack” domain) that you are going to use. And by the way, even if the problem is apparently one of “ideas,” those ideas appear along as you write too. Creativity feeds on itself… I mean, I had no idea where I would end with this post, I just knew the first line and a general idea of what I was aiming for, but here I am, 1100 words later.

Do you struggle with landscapes? Well, how many landscape-related words and concepts can you recall in one minute? Zero? Well, no wonder you are struggling. Emotional descriptions, clothing, colors, descriptions of movement/direction? Or perhaps you find it hard to set a specific mood? Even if you manage to write a few words, can you explain their differences in meaning and connotation? You may recognize words like glinting, glimmering, or glistening and know that they have something to do with light or light reflecting on a surface, but you know what they really mean, their differences? Would you use the correct word if you had to write one of them to describe how light reflects on the sea or steel?

Well, it’s not enough to pick up a book and hope to learn something as your eyes scan the text, you actually need to push the concepts up from the recesses of your brain to the upper levels of conscious and long-term memory. You can make lists, flash cards (like Anki,) mnemonics, or whatever you like, but once you have identified the problem, at least you know what to do about it and you’ll have dispelled the aura of mystical creativity that still surrounds writing. Luckily for you, there are many places online that can help you with that, from to almost any online dictionary.

Or if you think that’s a lot of work, you can just become a modern writer and use ‘fuck‘ for everything.





3 thoughts on “Psychology of reading and writing: recalling vs. recognizing.

  1. Pingback: Psychology of writing: word accessibility – Emperor's Notepad

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