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Technical Writing: Cognitive Load Meets Text Organization

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Cognitive Load Meets Text Organization

Psychology Tip

In June, 2020, an influential computer-science journal (Communications of
the Association for Computing Machinery, CACM) devoted three of its
scarce pages to a slightly humorous summary of some basic techniques
for managing cognitive load, Thomas Limoncelli's "Communicate using
the numbers 1, 2, 3, and more," (CACM, 63:6, pp. 42-44, doi:
10.1145/3386267).  Limoncelli's little note reviews the psychological
principle, well-known among teachers and industrial trainers, that
when discussing multiple related items "The length of the list
affects how the audience interprets what is being said" (p. 42).

A list (or set, since order is irrelevant here) of 1 item promotes
focus, of 2 items promotes comparison, of 3 items promotes
(undifferentiated) appreciation, and of 4 or more stresses variety.
Grouping many more items into just 1, 2, or 3 (named) classes can
extend this strategy even further.  Such a science-in-practice note
benefits novice technical writers not only through its psychological
advice, its content, but also by its mere presence--a reminder
featured in a high-profile publication addressed to adult professional
scientists and engineers, not just to children in school.

Organizational Challenge

The 1-2-3 cognitive-load technique summarized here certainly helps
students straight up--it suggests alternative, effective ways to
organize what they write.  But the second, "presence" lesson can
help them significantly too--it encourages them to develop their
"rhetorical responsibility," their awareness that as nonfiction
authors they NEED to organize what they write.

Explicitly organizing content (for a talk or paper or poster) is
a duty that falls directly on everyone who writes nonfiction.  
Unlike instructions (where trial runs with test users give lots of
feedback), descriptions in science and engineering never organize
themselves.  Writers must pick from many possible alternative
text structures (steps in time? parts in space? facets or aspects
ranked by importance for some purpose?).  Would the audience find
a coarse-grained or fine-grained organization more useful, given
their own likely goals when reading the description and the facts
available to the writer?

Descriptive Duties

Constructing a useful technical description therefore imposes a
serious intellectual burden on its writer, calling for many
interrelated organizational decisions.  Inexperienced writers
--your students perhaps--usually need help learning how to cope
(consider recommending the checklist linked at the end of this
post).  Experienced writers, on the other hand, embrace these
decisions overtly and tap their knowledge of relevant usability
or human-factors research, such as that summarized above in the
1-2-3 guidelines, to make useful rather than careless or
frustrating organizational choices.  You can coach your students
to see that managing reader cognitive load is THEIR special
responsibility whenever they write about STEM topics, to increase
the safety and effectiveness of their technical text (just as for
a vaccine!)--issues largely irrelevant to literary prose.

So your calling attention to Limoncelli's cognitive-load advice,
aside from its direct benefit, can also indirectly encourage
student writers to develop the metacognitive maturity that they
will need, immediately and throughout their working lives.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
For a classroom-tested good-description checklist for students, see ]


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