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Ask Dr. Editor

Reducing the weight of your words

How to lighten your reader’s cognitive load in your academic writing.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | NOV 08 2019

Question for Ask Dr Editor:

I recently learned that I have a writing tic: I tend to use a lot of modifying words in between the subject in my sentence and its verb. I was told that having the subject and verb far apart makes my work harder to read. Is that true? Is this tic an actual problem?

– Anon

Answer:

When your sentences sprawl over the landscape of your text, you risk having your reader lose their way. To help your reader follow a path, keep your subject short (no more than six words, please), and keep your subject and verb close together.

To illustrate:

“Insistence that there is no proof by scientific means of a causal link between tobacco consumption and various disease entities such as cardiac heart diseases and malignant growth, despite the fact that there is a strong statistical correlation between smoking behaviour and such diseases, is no longer the officially stated position of cigarette companies.” (Source: Williams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace)

Regular readers of this column will, no doubt, recognize a number of editing strategies that could improve this wild goose chase of a sentence: cut “is,” favour the active voice, and so on. But to make the biggest possible impact on the clarity of this sentence, the writer needs to shorten their subject and have their verb appear much earlier in the sentence.

To understand why these two guidelines are so important in academic writing, I spoke with Dr. Iva Cheung, an award-winning editor who teaches plain language and studies knowledge mobilization.

Clear communication and extraneous cognitive load

Dr. Cheung links sprawling sentences like the above to a reader’s working memory and cognitive load: “English sentences tend to be right-branching, meaning we expect the subject and verb to be close together, usually near the start of a sentence, with elaborations coming afterward. If you separate the subject and the verb, the reader has to hold the subject in their working memory, make their way through the words in between — and hold those in their working memory — before arriving at the verb and finally being able to process the sentence.”

“While they’re reading those intervening words, they’re vigilantly looking out for that verb, which also taxes working memory. So by splitting up the subject and verb, you are adding quite a bit of extraneous cognitive load. Keeping the subject and verb close lets the reader process that bit of information right away so that they can clear up some room in their working memory for what comes next.”

Extraneous cognitive load has to do with the way that information is presented. If you’ve ever had to struggle through an unnecessarily complex figure, a cluttered chart, or a convoluted sentence, you’ll have experienced that headache-inducing feeling of extraneous cognitive load. “Poor design, unclear language, and anything else that taxes working memory unnecessarily can lead to a high extraneous cognitive load,” Dr. Cheung warns.

Because many academics are chronically sleep-deprived, they’re ill-equipped to manage this extraneous cognitive load. When a person is trying to learn something, perhaps by reading a sentence or parsing a diagram, the total cognitive load they’re carrying can’t exceed the capacity of their working memory. Fatigue, stress, and worry all impair the executive functions, including working memory; unfortunately, fatigue and stress and worry are all too common among faculty members (for an example, see Stupnisky, Hall, & Pekrun, 2019).

While you can’t modify the inherent complexity of the information — it’s intrinsic cognitive load — Dr. Cheung advises, “you can take steps to minimize its extraneous cognitive load by making your writing clear and easy to understand. Reducing extraneous cognitive load as much as possible increases the chances that your message will get through to your reader.”

“If you’re trying to convince a reviewer that your proposed project is worth funding or that your article is worth publishing, you’ll probably have more luck if the submission is easy to understand (that is, you don’t make the reviewer work too hard) and clearly shows why your research question is important.”

Your cognitive load may be lighter than someone else’s

If you’re invested in improving accessibility and equity in higher education, then it’s imperative that you reduce the extraneous cognitive load of your teaching and your academic writing. “People at intersections of systems of oppression have a lot more to worry about than the rest of the population, and those worries and distractions can chew up working memory, making it an ethical imperative for communicators to minimize the cognitive load their documents impose on these readers,” says Dr. Cheung.

In “Plain Language to Minimize Cognitive Load: A Social Justice Perspective” (IEEE 2017), Dr. Cheung argues that considering the cognitive load of marginalized populations — and integrating plain language writing strategies that reduce extraneous cognitive load — is an act of allyship. She adds, “the knowledge arising from publicly funded research should be publicly accessible, so in addition to removing paywalls, we should be removing barriers to understanding in the text itself.”

Want to integrate more plain language strategies into your work?

You can:

  1. Take a continuing studies course in plain language;
  2. Dedicate some time to reviewing reputable plain language sources, such as the CDC’s Plain Language Materials and Resources, or the Government of Canada’s Plain Language guide;
  3. Consult the research literature on plain language, technical communication, user experience, literacy, and educational psychology;
  4. Show your writing to a colleague outside of your research group, or to someone at your institution’s writing centre, to get feedback on the clarity of your expression; or,
  5. Hire an editor.
ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia.
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