Book Review

Speaking as a professional writer, The Reader’s Brain (TRB) has become my bible. In my view it is the best modern reference book for non-creative writers on how to write effectively and efficiently.


In a past life I was formally trained in UK government writing. Instructors would extol the virtues of Fowler’s Modern English Usage – another bible that has stood the test of time in conventional circles. But Fowler was not a linguist. He was a grammarian.  More importantly, in his day the technology to record and analyse neurological activity simply didn’t exist. It was, therefore, impossible to determine the most efficient form of non-creative writing, i.e. that which places the least burden on the reader’s brain but ensures the maximum degree of comprehension and retention – the aim of high-quality writing.


In UK government writing we were taught that the principles of good ‘staff work’, as it is called, are ABC – accuracy, brevity and clarity. These are certainly valid. However, in TRB Yellowlees Douglas has dragged the subject into the twenty-first century by demonstrating how fMRI scanning of readers’ brains has led to much more knowledge on how to place the least amount of ‘cognitive load’ on readers while maximising their abilities to comprehend and retain the information.  More importantly, TRB is also the product of many decades of teaching during which the author has successfully helped to improve the non-creative writing skills of tens of thousands of grateful professionals over many disciplines, particularly in fields of medicine and business.


I remember well Karen Brady addressing the 2013 Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference in which she lamented the appalling standard of written communication across UK business – a generation of professionals unable to articulate themselves clearly and concisely on paper.  TRB, when published in 2015, was, therefore, very timely.


Published by the Cambridge University Press, TRB is not necessarily an easy read in that its small size belies profound insights – no page-turner to be finished in one sitting. In many respects it is a reference book as much as it is didactic.  In exploring readers’ brains, Yellowlees Douglass has concluded that to minimise brain stress and ensure maximum comprehension and retention one should pay attention to what she calls the 5 Cs: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision and cadence.


After an amusing introduction TRB is structured in the order of these 5 Cs. Each builds on the previous: Clarity – how to write simple clear sentences; Continuity – how to link these sentences together; Coherence – how to construct paragraphs; Concision – how to link paragraphs into concise documents; and Cadence – how to write to tickle the brain’s natural rhythms.  Written with lively and sometimes irreverent humour, TRB is packed full of useful tips: if you want people to remember things use an active construction with action verbs; in lists use no more that five bullets, placing the most important point as the last not the first; if you want to bury bad news use the passive construction, and many more useful nuggets.  But this material is dense and requires thought and reflection, so I would recommend TRB is read in bite-sized chunks, possibly six – the introduction and then devote time to each of the five sections.


I have been writing my entire life in one guise or another.  TRB has helped me immeasurably in progressing my own writing, proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks.  And this is Yellowlees Douglas’ great achievement.  If you want to improve your own non-creative writing skills, look no further than The Reader’s Brain.

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