The advice to write short, simple, clear prose isn’t merely preference—it’s also science. The social science behind cognitive load theory and working memory tells us we should simplify legal concepts, make their connections clear, and use shorter words and sentences if we want readers to understand. This is because each of us has a limited amount of brain power that we can use while we intake and process information before everything falls apart. Colloquially, we call this “brain strain.”
Readers are Jugglers
Now imagine readers as jugglers. The objects that readers are juggling are concepts in writing. A beginner can juggle fewer items, and all items must match. A skilled juggler may successfully manage many mismatched items, but it’s stressful and graceless. At some point, the task becomes too difficult, and all of the balls drop. Research shows that most readers can juggle or remember no more than seven concepts.
Juggling Difficult Concepts
In this example, juggling represents the act of interpreting and understanding text. This is cognitive load. The number of balls to be juggled represents the number of concepts the reader must understand. This is working memory. The consistency of the size, shape, and weight of the balls makes it easier to successfully juggle more balls. The consistency of the balls represents the familiarity of words and the ease of accomplishing the task. This is fluency.
If there are too many balls or the balls are too different, the juggler becomes overloaded or gives up.
This happens to readers, too.
Readers will stop trying to understand your writing when they must hold too many concepts in their heads and if they must overcome too many challenges to work through your text.
Cognitive Load and Working Memory
Professors Andrew Carter and Laura A. Webb applied working memory and cognitive load theory to legal writing, reading, and learning. They posit that working memory allows us to temporarily store new information and mentally manipulate, use, or build on it, and connect it to prior knowledge. It’s key to learning, creating long-term memory, and performing complex tasks. But working memory has limited capacity. And the greater the intellectual complexity of the concepts, the more working memory is used.
Because law is an inherently complex subject, we must work harder to make sure our writing eases the strain.
Plain Language Eases Brain Strain
A more accessible way to think of cognitive load and working memory is “brain strain.” As we receive information, we process it into categories with familiar labels. Then we try to make that newly categorized information useful. When we struggle to take in new information and process it, that’s brain strain. To reduce brain strain, legal writers are advised to use short sentences, familiar word choices, and obvious structure so readers can easily understand your writing.
This advice is consistent with the legal writing advice we’ve heard for decades. It turns out that the leading legal writing experts and plain language advocates have stumbled upon scientifically supported advice—despite most approaching writing as an artform.
Convert High-Effort Documents
Applying this advice isn’t easy. When we ask readers to take on a new legal topic, apply critical reasoning, and reach complex conclusions, we’re asking for peak cognitive performance.
To get there, we must improve document presentation and organize our writing to compensate for the difficulty of the content. The more brainpower a reader must devote to figuring out our sentences, the less they can dedicate to understanding our meaning.
So, what steps can legal writers take to ease brain strain?
Revise and Reorganize Before Editing
Obvious and visible structure is one of the most effective ways to reduce brain strain for readers. Even if you outlined your work before writing, you may discover more effective ways to group concepts while you were writing. So be open to overhauling your organization. Organize concepts logically so the connection between each paragraph and each sentence is clear.
Professor Carter suggests grouping concepts together in smaller “chunks” by conceptual relationship and drawing on contextual knowledge from the document structure. To “chunk,” the writer defines a category, relates information within the category, and then uses the established relationship between items in the category to represent a complex concept. Each chunk of information should have obvious, specific psychological significance. And when the chunking is based on simple categories, it eases brain strain and increases understanding.
To employ chunking, you may need to reorganize your entire document. And because you may make large-scale organizational changes to your document, it’s best to work on organizational clarity before moving on to editing.
Edit to Reduce Strain
After reorganizing and revising, edit to reduce brain strain. Ease brain strain by reducing distracting details, deleting unnecessary abstract concepts, and simplifying complex sentence structures. Rewrite winding sentences and cut multiple dependent clauses. Add headings, subheadings, and signposts throughout your document.
Question whether every legal term you’ve used is truly necessary vocabulary. Replace unfamiliar words with simple, familiar ones. This makes it easy for the reader to receive and process information. Easily understood information inspires trust and confidence. At first, editing to reduce brain strain for your reader will be difficult, but over time you will get better.
Unfortunately, most people skip the revising and editing process or leave too little time to do it properly. Effective writers reserve 35% of their time for revising, editing, and proofreading their work. If you’re short on time, simplifying words is one of the most effective ways to ease brain strain. (WordRake can help you work through the editing process quickly and confidently.)
Let’s return to our juggling analogy. Are you minimizing and streamlining the items your reader must juggle, or are you constantly adding odd-shaped surprise items and demanding they juggle while unicycling? When your reader feels more like a circus clown and less like a graceful performance artist, the reader is experiencing brain strain—and the reader blames you. Reduce their brain strain and gain their trust by committing to better editing. WordRake can help free for 7 days.
Great organization, plain language, and clear and concise writing are the antidotes to brain strain. So, what are you doing to help your readers?
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.