Dr. Jeffrey Robens, who conducts the Nature Research Academies training workshops, shares three important cognitive learning principles that can help researchers improve the quality of their writing. Learn more about the third and final principle below.
Written by Dr. Jeffrey Robens
Welcome to the final installment of my three-part blog series about academic writing. Throughout the series I ask you think about ‘Writing as teaching’ because when writing a paper, you are trying to share your knowledge with others — just like a teacher.
And just like a teacher, you can employ a teaching strategy in your academic writing called cognitive learning strategy. There are three cognitive learning principles in particular that can improve your writing: (1) cognitive load theory, (2) cognitive bias, and (3) reader expectations.
My first blog explored cognitive load theory and the importance of being concise, my second blog discussed cognitive bias and the importance of being unambiguous, and this third and final blog will focus on the third cognitive learning principle: reader expectations.
When your readers are starting on their adventure through your story, they do know where you are going to take them. If they become confused along the way, they will likely stop reading your article. Therefore, to be an effective writer, you need to be an effective guide.
To do this, you need to give your readers clues or signs as to where you are taking them. This is called signposting, and there are a number of ways to do this.
The first and simplest way is to use linking words. Below, you will find a table of some useful linking words that can be used to guide readers from one idea to another. When readers see the word ‘however’, they immediately know that the next idea contrasts with the previous one. When readers know what to expect next, they can more quickly understand the next idea.
However (here is my signpost letting you know the next idea contrasts with the one in the previous paragraph), use these linking words sparingly. They can make your writing boring; therefore, they are more like last resorts rather than first options. A more useful way to guide your readers is to use sentence structure instead.
Gopen and Swan1 published a nice article called the Science of Scientific Writing in 1990. It is still an excellent resource for any writer wanting to improve their clarity. One of my favorite concepts from this article was the important role of the topic and stress positions in a sentence.
The topic position is the first part of the sentence that should introduce the single idea being discussed. Similar to how a topic sentence should introduce the topic of the paragraph to the reader as well. By providing this information in the beginning, the reader knows what to expect in the remainder of the sentence.
The stress position is the end of the sentence and plays two important roles for the reader. First, it emphasizes what is important about the idea. For example, if I ask you to determine which sentence suggests I will buy you dinner, which would you choose? Sentence 1 or 2?
Most people would choose sentence 2. But why? Both sentences have the exact same words. All I did is rearrange the words. Because readers focus on the end of the sentence (i.e., the stress position) to determine what is important, most would agree that sentence 2 suggests you will get a free meal.
You should use the same writing technique in your papers as well. When you want to emphasize what is important about your idea, place it at the end of the sentence. You will then influence your readers just as I did with sentence 2 above.
But the stress position is also useful for signposting as well. Let’s look at the following two sentences.
“Titania surface modification of the scaffold increased catalytic efficiency. This efficiency was prominent early in the reaction but decreased over time.”
In the first sentence, ‘increased catalytic efficiency’ is the stress position. It is emphasizing what was important about the surface modification. Additionally, it is being used for signposting as well. Before we even read the next sentence, we can assume, based on reader expectations, that the next idea will be about this increased efficiency. And it is. In this case, we do not need to rely on linking words to guide our readers. Efficient sentence structure using both topic and stress positions is sufficient.
That concludes my summary of reader expectations and the three cognitive learning principles. In summary, using the three principles — cognitive load theory, cognitive bias, and reader expectations — will considerably improve the clarity of your writing. When your ideas are being clearly delivered to the reader, they will have greater influence and maximize your impact.
1. Gopen G and Swan J. American Scientist. 1990; 78: 550–558.
The cognitive learning principles are taught as part of the Nature Research Academies workshops in ‘Getting Published’. If your institution is interested in hosting a ‘Getting Published’ workshop, or if you are a researcher interested in recommending the workshops to your institution, please click here for details.