Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Thinking Thursdays: Consider your reader's working-memory limits

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor, Rutgers Law School

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Professor Andrew Carter has used a juggling metaphor to caution his students about exceeding a reader’s working-memory limitations. A sentence and paragraph need to stay within the boundaries of what a reader can competently hold in her working memory if the writer wants that reader to thoroughly comprehend and maintain the writer’s ideas. His article on the topic provides lawyers with useful information why our writing needs revisions for clarity and, yes, brevity.

Working memory is more than pass-through storage for new information. It is also where we interpret that information and use it to complete tasks. A simple arithmetic problem can be solved in our heads thanks to working memory, because it is there that we are both storing information (the numbers) and processing that information (performing the arithmetic function). At some point, Professor Carter points out, arithmetic becomes too difficult if there are too many numbers to store and manipulate. While we might be able to add numbers in the 100’s, we may need to turn to writing instruments to solve addition or subtraction problems that involve numbers in the thousands or ten-thousands.

Working memory has three different components to it: the first part stores the new information and the second part rehearses it on a loop to avoid forgetting. Third, the central executive component coordinates the information and controls the processing.  

Written text likewise engages working memory. But, a reader can process only a limited number of concepts in a single sentence or paragraph before overwhelming the limited capacity of working memory’s ability to store, rehearse, and process information. In the central executive aspect, the reader completes two tasks: discerning the text’s meaning and putting the text into context by mediating interactions with information housed in long-term memory. Thus, says Professor Carter, legal writers need to be cautious about how much information they ask the reader to juggle.

Professor Carter thus offers two sage pieces of advice. First, promote automatic processing. That means keeping the information simplified and free from disruptions. Long sentences with extraneous information, ornate syntax or obscure phrases all inhibit the automatic processing of information. So too will stumbling blocks in the way of grammatical, word-choice, or punctuation errors. Second, manage the cognitive load visually by chunking sentences and paragraphs so the interactivity of ideas is obvious rather than difficult to sus out. Causal ideas (if/then) in sentences and paragraphs should be clear to the reader via small-group chunks that are more automatically processed because they contain recognizable flow.

Naturally, legal readers carry a duty to read and digest the legal writing of an attorney. But, it bears repeating that a piece of writing’s efficacy will turn in part on its readability. Sometimes, keeping it simple is the strategic choice.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2018/07/thinking-thursdays-consider-your-readers-working-memory-limits.html

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