Thursday, May 16, 2013

Great non-fiction writing (3) – Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr (pictured) is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The topic is fascinating: how the Internet is reprogramming our brains. But the topic is also difficult, involving a lot of neuroscience. Mr. Carr’s first chapter helps the reader get ready for the challenge. Here’s an excerpt:
“Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

“I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.... what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
This is very easy to read. It scores a whopping 71.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease test, which means it’s much easier than this blog (usually in the 50s) and even easier than Reader’s Digest (usually in the 60s).

It’s also inviting. The typical book about science begins in the third person and stays there. Mr. Carr chose to begin his book in the first person, describing how he first noticed that the Internet was changing his brain.* This approach draws you into his world. You believe what he says. Maybe you’ve often felt as he has. Now you’re hooked; you want to learn more.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction (sample here) that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

*Keep in mind that starting a book in first person is not automatically effective. It worked well for Mr. Carr because he is a skillful writer and a thoughtful person, unlike the millions of bungling narcissists who write about themselves even when it bores, irritates or confuses their readers.
This is the 500th post on this blog. Thank you for your attention, today and over the years.

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