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 first principle below and check back for the next installments of this 3-part series.
Written by Dr. Jeffrey Robens
As a trainer with Nature Research Academies, I run publishing workshops around the world and one thing I always tell the researchers in my workshops is ‘Writing is teaching.' When you write a paper, it is because you are trying to share your knowledge with others. That is exactly what teachers do. Therefore, to be an effective writer, it is useful to implement effective teaching strategies in your writing.
There are three important cognitive learning principles that can improve the quality of your writing: (1) cognitive load theory, (2) cognitive bias, and (3) reader expectations. Keeping these principles in mind when you write your paper will ensure that you are effectively communicating your ideas with your readers.
Cognitive load theory was established in 1988 by John Sweller1 when he wanted to determine how much new information the human mind can process at one time. Not surprisingly — we are not computers — our mind is limited. If you try to give your readers too much information at one time, they will get confused. If people get confused when trying to understand your article, they will likely stop reading. If this happens, you have lost your opportunity to have impact and influence on the field.
This is why conciseness is so important in academic writing. Your ideas are complex; therefore, feed them to your reader one small spoon at a time. How long do you think sentences should be? I often ask participants in my workshops this question and most answer between 10 to 20 words. And that is correct. However, in practice, this is rarely done. I often come across sentences that are 30, 60, or even 80 words long! Miller and Selfridge2 showed back in 1950 that once sentences become longer than 20 words, recall is considerably reduced, so keep your sentences short.
There are two useful tips to keep your sentences short. First is to communicate only one idea per sentence. If you do this, most of your sentences will be an appropriate length. The second is to avoid unnecessary words. Unnecessary words are those that do not add value to the meaning of the sentence. And there is a simple rule you can follow — can you delete those words without changing the meaning of the sentence? If so, delete them. They are not necessary.
Some common phrases that are not necessary, but often used in academic writing, include: ‘it is well known that’, ‘as a matter of fact’, and ‘it is worth mentioning that’. All these phrases can be deleted without affecting the meaning of the sentence. There are also long phrases that can be replaced by single words as well. For example, ‘that is another reason why’ can be replaced with ‘therefore’, ‘despite the fact that’ can be changed to ‘although’, and ‘it is interesting to note that’ can be simply replaced with ‘interestingly’ or ‘notably’.
Applying these two tips will help ensure your sentences are a manageable length. You can test the length of your sentences by reading them aloud. Most people cannot read a sentence with more than 20 words in one breath. So, if you have to take a breath while reading a sentence, it is probably too long.
The same principle applies to paragraphs as well. No one wants to read a paragraph that is the length of a page! Therefore, keep your paragraphs focused on one idea and keep them short. Usually five or six sentences is enough.
That concludes my look at cognitive load theory – I hope you find it useful for your writing. Look out for my next blog posts, covering two more cognitive learning principles: cognitive bias and reader expectations.
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.
1. Sweller J. Cognitive Science. 1988; 12: 257–285.
2. Miller & Selfridge. Am J Psych. 1950; 63: 176–185.