16 December 2009

Writing Advice with Health Implications

Any guide to good writing says that specific phrasing is stronger than vague generalities. Rich vocabularies can express more than narrow lexicons. Some repeated phrases might be poetic, but using the same words or phrases or constructions over and over is a good way to bore readers.

Specific terms and varied phrasing aren’t just the hallmarks of lively writing. They’re also markers of a healthy mind.

Psychologists have long known that there’s a link between how people write and the probability that they will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the important work on this question was part of the ongoing nun study.

Researchers examined autobiographies that women wrote decades earlier when they joined a religious order, and then looked at who developed Alzheimer’s. Since those women shared living quarters and lifestyles for many years, they had generally equal exposure to environmental factors, giving more weight to genetics, early upbringing, and habits.

As the New York Times reported: “nuns who packed more ideas into the sentences of their early autobiographies were less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease six decades later.”

In particular, some of the prose markers of incipient Alzheimer’s disease are:

  • use of indefinite words, such as “thing” and “anything.”
  • breadth of vocabulary.
  • repeated phrases, such as “all sorts of.”
Earlier this year, as reported in McLean’s, professors of English and Computer Sciences at the University of Toronto collaborated to measure those elements in fourteen mystery novels that Agatha Christie wrote over her career. This study found a 31% drop in vocabulary between novels Christie wrote at 63—when she was already a facile, best-selling author, able to publish nearly anything—and the last she completed, at 81. Vague and repetitive phrasing went up.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that developing a livelier writing style staves off Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. But it can’t hurt.


Gail Gauthier said...

I was a big Christie fan when I was a teenager, and I did feel the quality of some of her last books declined. I'm thinking particularly of the last Tommy and Tuppence book. I've just looked it up, and, sure enough, she was 83 when she wrote it.

J. L. Bell said...

The long-lived prolific British author whom I read as completely as possible was P. G. Wodehouse, and his later books are also among his weakest. The plots and witticisms are familiar, and they’re shorter. I wonder if the same methods would find similar decline in vocabulary, etc.