The Neuroscience of Changing Fonts

Editor Susan Bell recommends that, prior to printing out your manuscript for another edit, you change the font -- this could help you see the text with a fresh perspective. From Bell's book The Artful Edit -- “Jim Lewis discovered that going from Times Roman to Helvetica kicked the complacency out of his eye.”

A blog post from Jonah Lehrer provides some “rampant, reckless neuroscientific theorizing” in support of this approach. The lab of Stanislas Dehaene has distinguished between two reading pathways in the brain. Reading "routinized, familiar passages" activates an area of the brain known as the visual word form area -- Lehrer compares this to reading “on auto-pilot.”

But Dehaene and colleagues found that, when their experimental subjects read text that had been variously mutated and degraded, this activated another area of the brain, often described as part of the dorsal route, which has been linked to letter-by-letter processing in children who are learning to read. Reading using this other part of the brain, Lehrer conjectures, might force you to think more about what's on the page, with the result that you do a better editing job.

I'm currently in edit mode myself on a big project. Genuinely to reengage with my text, should I go for as outlandish a font as possible?

Lehrer's post attracted interesting comments about how a similar principle could apply in painting and programming, and also includes this funny quote from Zadie Smith -- “It's an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it's published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival.”

3 thoughts on “The Neuroscience of Changing Fonts”

  1. I recommend translating your text to another language and editing it in this foreign language for a challenge 🙂

  2. Great suggestions, but I went with Bitstream Charter. The novel in question seemed oddly different in this font – like the work of an author even more obsessive than myself.

    For the draft after that, I used Tacoma, and the novel seemed sturdier: in a perverse kind of way, I look forward to reading every one of my novels in every conceivable font…

    Beware Zapf Chancery however! When I tried this font for the next draft, the document became corrupted. I recovered some of it, but am now having to type the rest of the novel back in from a hard copy. Disasters like this always seems to happen in the course of creating a novel, and perhaps, in the spirit of Susan Bell, one could argue that these disasters are actually beneficial, forcing one to see the work differently. Although somehow my initial response to losing chunks of the text is never this serene…

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