Revision tip from James Frey: Be specific

Congratulations to Chris for winning a copy of Dreaming in Hindi. I will be e-mailing you for your mailing address.

I want to try something different for today. James Frey in his book How to Write a Damn Good Novel gave some good tips on writing good prose. I thought it might be fun to use these tips to revise a passage as a group.

 Below is a passage written by yours truly. After the passage, I will give a tip from the book for improving it. I invite you to rewrite the passage in the comments. If people like exercise, I will choose one of the comments as a starting point for revision using the next tip and so on.

Here's the passage:

Sarah arrived at school eager for the afternoon's Halloween party. As she sat down at her desk, she looked inside her bag for her costume. Most of her robot costume was there, but she couldn't find the helmet. She looked around but couldn't see it anywhere. She asked her teacher whether she had seen it, but the teacher said no.

By recess time, Sarah was very worried indeed. What would she do? She couldn't possibly be a robot without a helmet. Finally, she had an idea. She found the school janitor and asked him to open the supply closet. In the supply closet, she found an old bucket that fit perfectly on her head. Her costume was saved.

And here's the first revision tip: be specific. Frey rewrites “When Mrs. Applegate arrived at the terminal, the train had already left,” as “When Beatriz Applegate arrived at the Reno's Amtrak terminal, she found the 5:15 for San Francisco disappearing on the western horizon.”  You don't necessarily have to be that elaborate, but you get the idea.

Can used this tip to rework the passage? Please leave your revisions in the comments!

How Language Affects Thought

I recently read Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich’s memoir of her year in India learning Hindi. Rich intersperses quirky anecdotes of learning and culture shock with scientific insights about learning a second language. I was excited see her mention two of my favorite studies on language and thought.

Psychologists and philosophers have long debated whether language shapes the way we think. While the most drastic viewpoint – that thought can’t exist without language -- has fallen out of favor, psychologists still study more subtle effects.

The first study has to do with gender in language. Many languages assign genders to words. For example, in Spanish, the word for “key” is feminine, while the German word for” key” is masculine. Gender for the most part is arbitrary and varies from language to language, which allows for some interesting experiments.
Psychologist Lera Boroditsky and colleagues asked Spanish and German speakers to provide descriptive adjectives for different objects. Interestingly, people produced adjectives that were consistent with gender stereotypes. For example, German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful, while Spanish speakers described them as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and shiny. For the word “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the opposite happened. Germans described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, and peaceful, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, and strong.

(Methodological note: the masculinity or femininity of adjectives was determined by a separate group of English speakers, blind to the study’s purpose, who rated these adjectives on masculinity and femininity. It's kind of amusing to see which words received which rating.)

In a second experiment, Boroditsky looked at language and the conception of time. English speakers primarily speak of time in horizontal terms. For example, we talk about moving meetings forward, or pushing deadlines back. Mandarin speakers, on the other hand, use up/down metaphors as well. So a Mandarin speaker would refer to the previous week as “up week” and next week as “down week.”

Boroditsky performed an experiment to see whether priming people to think either vertically or horizontally would affect their ability to think about time. Participants first answered a question about horizontally or vertically placed objects. For example, they saw two worms in a row and had to say whether the black worm was in front. Or they’d see two vertically stacked balls and say whether the black ball was above the white ball. Then the participants answered a question about time (“ Does March come before April”, etc.).

They found that English speakers were quicker to answer questions about time after answering horizontal spatial questions, while Mandarin speakers were quicker after vertical spatial questions. This reminds me of the scaffolded mind idea, in which concrete experiences provide a way to understand abstract concepts.

What do these studies say to me as a writer? It's interesting to see how subtle aspects of language affect the way we think. It argues for thinking like poets and valuing each word were not just a dictionary meaning, but all the other layers of associations and meanings that come with it. I don’t think it’s worth obsessively wondering about subconscious associations, but it’s certainly something interesting to think about.

Note: Dreaming in Hindi was given to me as a review copy.

Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers' Conceptions of Time Cognitive Psychology, 43 (1), 1-22 DOI: 10.1006/cogp.2001.0748

Storytellers and How They Force Their Brain Activity on Their Audience

In a previous post, I suggested that writers were brain manipulators. Now I'm refining the description. It's more like a Vulcan mind meld.

A recent experiment by scientists at Princeton University shows neural coupling (coordinated brain activity) between a storyteller and a listener. The researchers used fMRI to scan a speaker’s brain as she told an unrehearsed story about an experience from high school. They then scanned 10 volunteers as they listened to a recording of the story.