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ASK DR. EDITOR

Your reader is a little bit drunk

Many academics are chronically sleep deprived. When you’re writing your most important documents, ensure your formatting makes it easy for tired brains to process your words.

By LETITIA HENVILLE | OCT 16 2018

Question:

Dr. Editor’s response:

There’s no shortage of online articles telling candidates for academic jobs that they’re doing it wrong. A correlation has even been found between graduate school and mental illness and distress. And with the academic job market showing no signs of expanding in the near future, I wish I could offer job applicants a clickbait-y one simple method for cutting excess length in application materials! But telling job applicants that they can use an 11-point font in their application components does them a disservice.

Job applicants should be doing everything in their power to reduce their word count before they start fiddling with font sizes. I’ve written elsewhere about strategies that academics can use to shave down their word count – notably, by cutting zombie nouns and hollow verbs, especially “is”.

So instead of focusing on how to make academic writing more dense, I want to emphasize why job applicants – and, really, anyone writing in a high-stakes scholarly genre: the funding application; the promotion & tenure dossier – should cut content before they dare touch their font size.

Reducing font sizes reduces legibility, and the last thing you want to do is make it hard for someone to read your work. The thing is, that academic sitting on the job application committee, and that funding agency’s peer reviewer? They’re both a little bit drunk.

Of course I speak metaphorically. The overwhelming majority of peer reviewers aren’t literally intoxicated when they read your documents (one hopes). It’s likely, however, that they’re not getting enough sleep:

A tired reader isn’t just less likely to be patient with an author: they’re also more easily distracted and less able to process information in their active, working memory.

Attentional control and working memory are both impaired by sleepiness – both chronic and acute. These executive functions are managed by our prefrontal cortex, which is also one of the regions of the brain most impacted by the consumption of alcohol. If you image a tired brain in a PET scan, you’ll see some patterns similar to the ones you’d see in drunk brain.

The U.S.-based National Sleep Foundation says that “[b]eing awake for 18 hours straight makes you drive like you have a blood alcohol level of .05.” But your reader doesn’t have to have been pulling an all-nighter in order to feel the physical effects of sleep deprivation. Our bodies are fragile, and research out of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science is showing just how vulnerable we are to even small fluctuations in sleep – they’ve shown, for example, that the number of heart attacks in the U.S. go up 24 percent after we lose an hour of sleep when the clocks move ahead each spring, and go down 21 percent when we gain an extra hour of sleep each autumn. When it comes to sleep, small deficiencies can have big effects on the human body.

Academics work a lot. People who work long hours tend to get less sleep. They’re tired, their brains are tired, their prefrontal cortexes aren’t lighting up normally, and they aren’t positioned to read attentively or effectively process information in their working memory when they’re in this situation.

In high-stakes genres, it’s a bad idea to assume that your reader will be well-rested before they sit down read your work. You can hope your reader regularly gets their eight hours a night, but given the demands and the norms of academia, it’s possible that your reader is drunky-tired.

In universities, we’re accustomed to seeing emails sent between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m., and to long lines at campus coffee shops. If you start picturing these chronically tired academics as constantly tipsy – struggling to pay attention and to effectively process what they’ve just read – you’re less likely to believe that it’s a good idea to reduce the font size in a career-making document by 8.3 percent.

Write generously for tired readers. Don’t test their vision by reducing your font size. Instead:

  • Choose a clear, legible font. I’ve included a list of my favourites below.
  • Adapt plain language writing strategies for an academic audience. For instance, keep your terms consistent throughout your document: if you say you taught a “first-year contemporary fiction survey” at one point in your job application, don’t later write about your “introductory-level course on prose narratives.”
  • Go back to basics. Write as you teach your students to write: in unified and coherent paragraphs with clear topic sentences.
  • Get to the point. Keep the majority of your sentences under 25 words.

Dr. Editor’s Favourite Fonts

Below are some free fonts that you may already have on your computer, or that you can find either freely or inexpensively online. (FontSquirrel is one reputable source for free fonts.) These typefaces are highly readable, and yet are dense enough that you can fit 90–100 characters in a 12-point line with one inch page margins.

Readable-yet-dense serif fonts: Readable-yet-dense sans serif fonts:
Freight Text Myriad
Palatino Maison Neue
Sabon Calibri
Eldorado Whitney
Times New Roman Open Sans

In general, Dr. Editor prescribes serif fonts for the body of your text – the majority of your document – with sans serifs working well for headings, subheadings, and special features like charts, tables, or captions.

Have a favourite font that isn’t listed here? Please share it in the comments below.

Acknowledgements & Further Reading

Special thanks this month to Michelle Boulton of 3c publications and Flora Gordon of Flora Gordon Design + Imagery for their advice on visual communication, and to Daphne Ling of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab for directing me to research on sleepiness and executive function.

Want to know more about the effects of sleepiness on the brain? Works consulted for this article include:

  • Dahlgren A, Kecklund G, Åkerstedt T. Overtime work and its effects on sleep, sleepiness, cortisol and blood pressure in an experimental field study. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health. 2006 Aug 1: 318-327.
  • Diamond A. Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology. 2013 Jan 3;64: 135-68.
  • Krause AJ, Simon EB, Mander BA, Greer SM, Saletin JM, Goldstein-Piekarski AN, Walker MP. The sleep-deprived human brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2017 Jul;18(7): 404-418.
  • Lim J, Dinges DF. A meta-analysis of the impact of short-term sleep deprivation on cognitive variables. Psychological bulletin. 2010 May;136(3): 375-389.
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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