Editors Think a Lot About Writers—Is This a New and Better Way to Do It?

By Jack Limpert

During 50 years of editing, I found that the simplest way to look at writers was left brain-right brain. The theory was that left brain types are better at logic and analysis, the right brain types better at imagination and creativity.

Sure, writers come in many different packages—good talker-good listener, book smart-street smart, lots of drive-kind of lazy, I’m only doing it for the money-it’s my passion in life, etc.—but the left brain-right brain approach seemed most useful. Some magazine stories needed more logical thinking, some needed more emotional life.

One challenge for an editor was keeping writers focused on the kind of stories they’re best at. I had a great reporter who came in one day and said he was tired of doing so much reporting and he wanted to switch to mostly writing think pieces. It didn’t happen.

I had a writer who was good at big synthesis pieces (Why are traffic problems so bad and what can be done?). He’d start by doing a month of mostly research and outlining. We’d talk about whether his outline made sense and he’d then figure out who he had to interview to get more insights and  good quotes. By the time he did most of his interviewing, the story was pretty well nailed down. Left brain all the way.

Another writer was good at feature pieces—she’d start out with a bit of an idea (Who’s interesting on Capitol Hill?) and then talk with lots of people before coming in to talk about what kind of story she could write. The story could have gone in lots of different directions and she was mostly interested in having fun with the subject and creating talk. Not much left brain.

Now comes a book, Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights Into How You Think, by Harvard psychology professor Stephen Kosslyn, that attacks the left brain-right brain approach. Here’s Kosslyn talking with Wall Street Journal editor Gary Rosen about his new book:

“Who hasn’t heard that people are either left-brained or right-brained—either analytical and logical or artistic and intuitive, based on the relative ‘strengths’ of the brain’s two hemispheres? How often do we hear someone remark about thinking with one side or the other?

“A flourishing industry of books, videos and self-help programs has been built on this dichotomy. . . . The left brain/right brain difference seems to be a natural law.

“Except that it isn’t. The popular left/right story has no solid basis in science. The brain doesn’t work one part at a time, but rather as a single interactive system, with all parts contributing in concert, as neuroscientists have long known. The left brain/right brain story may be the mother of all urban legends: It sounds good and seems to make sense—but just isn’t true.”

Kosslyn, as the book title suggests, wants to switch the way we see people from left brain-right brain to top brain-bottom brain:

“There is a better way to understand the functioning of the brain, based on another, ordinarily overlooked anatomical division—between its top and bottom parts. We call this approach ‘the theory of cognitive modes.’ Built on decades of unimpeachable research that has largely remained inside scientific circles, it offers a new way of viewing thought and behavior that may help us understand the actions of people as diverse as Oprah Winfrey, the Dalai Lama, Tiger Woods and Elizabeth Taylor.

“Our theory predicts that people fit into one of four groups, based on their typical use of the two brain systems. Depending on the degree to which a person uses the top and bottom systems in optional ways, he or she will operate in one of four cognitive modes: Mover, Perceiver, Stimulator and Adaptor.”

Here is how Kosslyn describes the Stimulator mode:

“Then there is Stimulator mode, which results when the top-brain system is highly utilized but the bottom is not. According to our theory, people who interact with the world in Stimulator mode often create and execute complex and detailed plans (using the top-brain system) but fail to register consistently and accurately the consequences of acting on those plans (using the bottom-brain system). They don’t update or correct their plans when events unfold in unexpected ways.

“Such people may be creative and original, able to think outside the box even when everybody around them has a fixed way of approaching an issue. At the same time, they may not always note when enough is enough. Their actions can be disruptive, and they may not adjust their behavior appropriately.”

Okay, the Kosslyn book is probably a provocative scientific study and will compete for attention with Thinking, Fast and Slow, an interesting 2011 book by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist based at Princeton. But for real people, such as editors looking at writers, the left brain-right brain way seems a lot more useful.


Also see Reporting, Writing—and Being Smart, an earlier post on this website about how editors look at writers. It has more information about other useful books about thinking and intelligence, including Frames of Mind, a groundbreaking book by Howard Gardner, also a Harvard psychologist, that looks at seven types of intelligence.

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