How to Compose More Readable Writing

P.E. ROWE

 

Writers often take for granted just how cognitively complex an activity reading is, and it’s this cognitive complexity that challenges the mind of your readers as they process your writing, especially if the topics you’re writing about are complex to begin with. Understanding how reading can challenge your reader cognitively will help position you to write stronger, more understandable writing.


In this article, we’re going to be breaking down the fundamental underlying principle behind most of the writing conventions you will ever come across:


If you want to write clear, comprehensible work, you need to reduce the cognitive strain that your writing places on your reader.


That concept may sound a little challenging, so to simplify things, we’re going to use a metaphor that makes this principle a little easier to digest.


Let’s get started:


In each reader’s brain, there’s a working memory. You might think of the working memory as the cognitive container of the conscious mind. It’s the part of the mind that registers conscious thoughts and does the mind’s active thinking. And this cognitive container where reading happens is actually relatively small. Just like you, your reader can only hold a few things in their cognitive container at a time before it gets overloaded. Learning how and where to strategically simplify your writing for your reader’s sake will dramatically improve the quality and readability of your writing.


Let’s take a look at a sentence to see what we mean:


  • The idea that the agrarian peasantry in late Middle-Age France was subject to overly oppressive economic constraints as a direct result of their station, a position held by most contemporary historians, has been brought into question by the economist Margaret Hobart.


Now there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about this sentence, and it’s not the most difficult sentence ever created, but it’s certainly not as easy on the reader as it should be. It strains the reader’s cognitive container. But why?


This sentence taxes the reader’s cognitive capital in a number of ways.


First, look at the underlined part of the example sentence above. That entire phrase functions as the subject of this sentence—the idea that the agrarian peasantry etc.… That subject phrase is twenty-four words long, and by the time the reader reads all those words and attempts to process them as the subject of the sentence, the cognitive container is probably very full and struggling to keep that phrase in mind while continuing on to learn what the writer is trying to tell them about that idea.


The next thing the reader encounters after the first comma in the example sentence is a phrase that interrupts the flow of the sentence by adding still more information the reader must process and hold in their cognitive container before even getting to the verb.


Finally, after that second comma, the reader arrives at a very wordy, imprecise verb phrase: “has been brought into question.”


Now the reader needs to try to put all that information together, they need to process the sentence’s meaning as best they can, and then they need to relate this sentence’s meaning to all the other sentences around it. Then if the reader has any patience left, they need to consider the greater meaning of what the writer is trying to say about the main idea of the article. It’s mentally exhausting, and I’d venture to say very few readers are going to consider this style of writing good writing.


So what are some ways we could improve this writing style?


Well let’s start by fixing the three things we identified as being cognitively taxing in this sentence.


  1. The first was a long phrase as the subject of this sentence. Instead of making a very long, very abstract idea the subject of the sentence, I’m going to make the economist the subject of this sentence.

  2. Next, that interrupting phrase? We can take it out of the way for now. This will move the subject of the sentence closer to its verb so that the reader doesn’t need to try so hard to parse the sentence.

  3. Third, that sloppy verb phrase? I’m going to use a more economical verb that’s going to make things easier on the reader.



Here’s what that would look like:


  • The economist Margaret Hobart has challenged the notion that class was the primary cause of oppressive economic constraints on agrarian peasants in late Middle-Age France.


That sentence takes a lot less mental strain to process.


And now, if need be, I can go back and add that interrupting phrase we took out. If we add that back in as an introductory phrase, we don’t lose the important point that Margaret’s idea is a contrarian position. Here’s what that would look like:


  • In contrast to many of her contemporaries, the economist Margaret Hobart has challenged the notion that class was the primary cause of oppressive economic constraints on agrarian peasants in late Middle-Age France.


We’re getting warmer. This sentence is certainly much easier to understand than the earlier version, but it still isn’t the easiest sentence to process. There are two reasons this sentence is still a bit cognitively complex.

  1. The first is that the vocabulary isn’t as easy as it could be, so I’m going to change “oppressive economic constraints” to “harsh economic conditions” and “agrarian peasants” to “farmers,” which will make it a little easier for the reader to process these words.

  2. The second issue that’s still making this sentence harder on the reader than it needs to be is that, really, there are a lot of complex ideas for one sentence. This means there’s a lot for a reader to juggle in their cognitive container in a short amount of time. We would do the reader a great favor by breaking this one sentence up and giving these ideas some room to breathe. There’s really no reason this information couldn’t be conveyed more easily in two sentences, like so:


  • Most historians think that farmers in late Middle-Age France faced harsh economic conditions because of their class status. Economist Margaret Hobart disagrees.


These two sentences read much more easily than the extremely complex sentence we started with, and they convey the same main idea—that one group of historians think one thing and that Margaret Hobart has another view. And the greatest benefit to the reader to communicating that point more clearly is that the reader now has plenty of cognitive capital to really consider the implications of this new, differing viewpoint and how that viewpoint might change how historians view this important aspect of that historical period.


So let’s review the conventions we applied to make this small bit of writing more cognitively digestible. These are conventions you can apply to your own writing to make it more reader-friendly.


  1. Use Short Simple Subjects whenever possible. They are easier for the reader to process and are more reader friendly.

  2. Keep Subjects Close to their Verbs so the reader doesn’t have to juggle the subject in their mind for too long while waiting for the verb. This will help your readers to parse the sentence more easily.

  3. Be Precise with your Verbs. Using verbs that are economical and precise, instead of wordy or vague will help your reader to focus on the precise thoughts you’re trying to convey.

  4. Don’t Overcomplicate Vocabulary. Try to use verbiage that is appropriate but not unnecessarily complex. In many cases, especially academic or professional writing, you’ll need to use some specialized vocabulary, but you might want to consider where and when you can reduce this complexity to give your reader a break from time to time.

  5. Break up Complex Sentences . You can always convert complicated sentences with complex ideas into multiple sentences rather than trying to cram too many ideas into a single sentence.


These conventions are not rules. It might be best to think of them as guidelines for helping writers to create more reader friendly writing. And this short list certainly isn’t a complete list. You’ll find as you encounter many other writing tips and conventions, that most of them have become commonly shared guidelines for the same reason these five are—they help reduce the strain on the reader’s cognitive container. Sometimes you may have to bend or break these conventions in order to communicate your ideas clearly. But when you do, as long as you consider the difficulty of the reader’s task in reading your writing, you’ll have a strong guiding principle—the reader’s cognitive container—which will help you to write documents that are easier on your reader.


You’ll probably never hear a reader say something like: “That was a great article, but I really wish it had been much more difficult to read.”


So do yourself and your readers a favor when you write. Consider how much you’re pouring into your reader’s cognitive container. Always try to keep it at a manageable level. That way you’ll be sure your ideas are getting through clearly and that your readers will still have enough space left in their cognitive containers to give your thinking the consideration it deserves.