Appellate Advocacy Blog

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James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Lists as Visual Rhetorical Strategy for Brief Writing: Set-Off and Stack-Up

Thursday’s Rhaw Bar:  A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law

Welcome to a new theme for posts on the Appellate Advocacy Blog: Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law. In this series, the Blog will explore ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersect of rhetoric and legal communication. Today we take a behind-the-scenes look at the rhetorical power of the “visual list” in brief writing.

In his excellent post a few weeks ago, professor and blogger Joe Regalia identified the myriad ways to use visuals in briefing, and he pointed out the “visual list” as a persuasive way to present information.  He noted that the technique is particularly effective for summarizing information.

The list is perhaps the original visual in brief writing—a writer can construct a list on manual typewriter or even with pen and paper; all one needs is the ability to indent, input text, and separate list items, such as with a number or icon (like a bullet point). But why does a list work as a visual as well as a textual persuasion device? In other words, if a reader never actually reads the text of a list, would the list still persuade? Does the list have rhetorical features as a “thing” unto itself, beyond the words that compose it?

As Professor Regalia’s post suggests, a list has a visual rhetorical effect all its own.  A list is effective as visual rhetoric because a list sets off and stacks up information.

1.    Lists visually set off information that the writer wants to mark as important.

Lists effectively use white space to set-off information, which shows its importance. Readers, even if they don’t consciously recognize it, use white space as a cue about how to respond to text. For example, think about paragraph breaks; the white space between two paragraphs and an indentation at the beginning of the first line of the second paragraph (which itself is a unit of white space) are cues to the reader that something important is happening—the new paragraph leaves behind the original topic and introduces a different topic. And the reader gets this information simply by skimming a page; the set-off is persuasive even before the reader actually reads the text content. (Try this yourself—take a look at the whole of a page of text—what does the white space say to you?)

The message of white space to set-off text is even more pronounced with lists, particularly when a list is indented from the left margin. When the reader encounters an indented list, the reader gets an immediate cue that something is special about the ideas captured in the list; the white space around it conveys that message. This white space says to the reader “Stop! Look here! This text is different from the rest of the information on this page. It is special, so pay extra attention.”  And this cue works to persuade even before the reader engages the list’s content.

2.    Lists stack up points of information to visually demonstrate weight or volume.

As a visual rhetorical tool, a list can have the effect of stacking up information to convey the weight or volume of the information presented. Think of a tower of kid’s building blocks. The taller the stack, the more impressive and memorable the tower for its sheer size alone. In the context of brief writing, then, a list can visually convey the strength of a point even before the reader reviews the list’s content. For example, take this list of triggers for using a graphic from Professor Regalia’s article:

• You have data—graphs nearly always make data easier to swallow than writing about the results.
• You want to make comparisons, connections, or contrasts between pieces of evidence or information. This is probably the most powerful, and least used tool. A simple table can drive home points like a party failing to submit any rebuttal evidence (one side of the table is your evidence, the other is their lack of it).
• You have a complex process to discuss—like an agency process, or a factual process that a party carried out.
• To show how a statute, regulation, or any other rule operates in steps.
• Any time you can use a chart to plot out a decision tree for your reader with the options laid out.
• Whenever you can come up with a visual that highlights key evidence or authority.

Now compare Professor Regalia’s same list, presented in paragraph form:

Here are some specific triggers when you might consider using a graphic:. You have data—graphs nearly always make data easier to swallow than writing about the results. You want to make comparisons, connections, or contrasts between pieces of evidence or information. This is probably the most powerful, and least used tool. A simple table can drive home points like a party failing to submit any rebuttal evidence (one side of the table is your evidence, the other is their lack of it). You have a complex process to discuss—like an agency process, or a factual process that a party carried out. To show how a statute, regulation, or any other rule operates in steps. Any time you can use a chart to plot out a decision tree for your reader with the options laid out. Whenever you can come up with a visual that highlights key evidence or authority.

Although the traditional paragraph contains the same information as the list, the paragraph makes less of a visual impact in conveying the number of situations where it would be appropriate for a writer to use a graphic in a brief. In the paragraph, the writer loses the visual impact of the “stacked” list, which, by virtue of the height of the stack, effectively conveys the many opportunities for brief writers to use graphics.

In the context of a brief, a list’s visual effectiveness in stacking up its content can prime the reader to understand the list’s content in the way the writer wants.  For example, in Professor Regalia’s list above, the reader who encounters this long list is primed to believe that the circumstances for graphic use are many. In the paragraph format, however, this “stacking” strategy is less effective; it is not as easy for the reader to see, before reading the paragraph in detail, that there are many opportunities for graphic use. (This comparison also suggests that if the writer wants to de-emphasize the weight or volume of information, the reader would not choose a list format and instead keep all of the information in a paragraph.)

If we go one more step and number the list items (i.e., 1., 2., 3., 4.), the list becomes even more visually persuasive because the reader is immediately cued to the size of the stack—six uses of graphics in briefs.

So, what do these two effects—set-off and stack-up—suggest for using lists? Consider formatting information into a list to accomplish these goals:

  • To give the reader the visual impression that textual information is uniquely important and should be given special attention; or
  • To show the reader—through formatting—that the items in your list are weighty, numerous, or otherwise substantial; or
  • To accomplish both.

Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice.  You may contact her at kkdavis@law.stetson.edu. 

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2019/07/lists-as-visual-rhetorical-strategy-for-brief-writing.html

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Comments

Rhaw bar? Painful pun. But great idea! Thank you.

Posted by: Michael Orenstein | Jul 11, 2019 5:27:00 AM

Awesome post :) Very persuasive shout out to lists!

Posted by: Joe Regalia | Jul 14, 2019 11:21:29 AM

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