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28 March 2012


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Stephen R. Diamond

One outcome of psychological research is that simpler isn't always better. (http://tinyurl.com/3e9fqcs) A certain degree of complexity is better for retention and persuasion—a finding of obvious significance for brief writing. Another finding in this line of research on "cognitive fluency/disfluency" is that it doesn't matter (for some purposes) whether dense or complex writing or illegible typography causes the beneficial disfluency. My inference is that the best practice is to use the clearest typography, and modulate the level of cognitive fluency by the writing style.

My series on cognitive fluency from a brief-writing perspective is at http://tinyurl.com/78nsplq

Derek Kiernan-Johnson

This is an interested study, but one with little impact on brief writing. The students were asked to memorize as much as they could about two imaginary animals' biological profiles. In other words, they were asked to cement discrete bits of information into short-term memory.

Intentionally poor document design and typography (and not just typeface choice) may very well help slow down readers, especially digital natives, making it harder for them to skim, forcing them to puzzle through individual word forms and phrases. That disfluency might then help them recall particular attributes of the imaginary animals better than students who were not forced to slow down and focus in this way, and thus score slightly higher on a test measuring how many attributes each student could recall.

Brief readers, of course, do not aim to score slightly higher on tests measuring how many discrete bits of information they can commit to short-term memory. Absent new research focusing on the effect of typographic disfluency on the types of reader comprehension relevant to brief reading, I wouldn't depart from the conventional views of what constitutes effective typography in briefs.

Chelsie Smith

I am a UTA (University Teaching Assistant) at the University of Maryland for a legal writing course and I must say that I would have to disagree with the idea that bad typography makes for a better brief. This post really struck a chord with me because I frequently tell my students that concision and clarity are some of the most important aspects of legal writing.

There are many studies that reference this same perception. Frequently undergraduates, as well as professionals, fall into using complex words in order to sound more intelligent but they end up confusing the reader and missing the purpose of their written assignment. An interesting study that you may want to read discusses this in length: "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems With Using Long Words Needlessly" by Daniel Oppenheimer. The study mentions the cognitive fluency that Stephen Diamond discussed in his previous comment.

I believe that readers DEFINITELY will remember your brief if you use bad typography, but they will not remember it favorably.

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