Joint Attention

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Writing is cognitively unnatural:

For almost all human existence, nobody wrote anything; even after that, for millennia, only a tiny elite did so. And it remains an odd way to communicate. You can’t see your readers’ facial expressions. They can’t ask for clarification. Often, you don’t know who they are, or how much they know. How to make up for all this?

Pinker’s answer builds on the work of two language scholars, Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, who label their approach “joint attention”. Writing is a modern twist on an ancient, species-wide behaviour: drawing someone else’s attention to something visible. Imagine stopping during a hike to point out a distant church to your hiking companion: look, over there, in the gap between those trees – that patch of yellow stone? Now can you see the spire? “When you write,” Pinker says, “you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.”

Perhaps this seems stupidly obvious. How else could anyone write? Yet much bad writing happens when people abandon this approach. Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry. All interfere with “joint attention”, making writing less transparent.

I’d say perfectly natural, rather than stupidly obvious.

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