Every writer faces similar questions when revising their words:
- How much revision does this need?
- How much time am I willing to put into it?
- When is the piece “good enough”?
- Can I hand it off to someone else to edit, clean up, and take care of?
You only know when you’ve done enough if you have a clear objective for the revision process. Focus on what you’re trying to achieve in the revision: the reader’s fluency and comprehension.
A piece is good enough when it works for the reader.
Cognitive Ease and Strain
According to the College Board, makers of Advanced Placement (AP) tests, the English Language and Composition test measures “reading comprehension of rhetorically and topically diverse texts.” Put simply, stressed-out high school students are asked to read long, complicated passages and then answer questions about them.
The tests include excerpts from famous historians, scientists, politicians, and other respected writers. The passages are chosen to induce cognitive strain. They are not inherently easy to understand.
Don’t put your readers through a similar grind. In the business context, induce a sense of cognitive ease, making it as effortless as possible for readers to understand the text.
The revision process is your best chance to eliminate cognitive strain.
Revision isn’t about making yourself look good, or landing a spot as a featured author on an AP test. Revise for the reader’s sake.
If the topic you’re writing about is complicated and dense, make sure that your words don’t make understanding more difficult. Don’t put cognitive hurdles in the reader’s path. Word choices and sentence construction can either help or hinder comprehension.
Consider the Reader’s Brain
Combining written words into coherent sentences is a difficult task for computers, in part because many words have multiple meanings.
For example, the word part in the previous sentence could be a noun (be a part of something) or a verb (as in, part the Red Sea). In this case, it functioned as a component of the expression in part. Your brain probably figured that out quickly. Usually, the correct meaning is so obvious that we do not notice possible alternatives. This processing happens in the background.
A computer may iterate through a sentence several times to derive the right meaning. In developing programs that recognize spoken language, computer scientists and linguists have been learn-ing from each other how we, as readers, decode the text that we read. Writers can benefit from these findings.
As we read, we navigate the different ways that a sentence could be assembled, and then put it all together to determine if it makes sense. We choose the most likely alternative for the sentence meaning and keep reading (or parsing, in computer terms).
If we reach a point at which the meaning isn’t working, we stop, backtrack, and try an alternative meaning for what we’ve read.
Search out those places where someone might backtrack, so your readers don’t encounter them.
Sentences that force readers to turn back are called garden path sentences. The name refers to the saying that to mislead someone is to “take them down the garden path.” A classic example is:
The old man the boats
When you reach the boats, you double back and realize that the subject is the old (as in old people) instead of the old man.
It only takes a moment. In that moment, you face unnecessary cognitive strain.
Every time we have to stop and reread, no matter how briefly, we disrupt the reading and comprehension process. We become less engaged with the meaning of the text, distracted by the effort to reassemble the sentences to make sense.
The curse of knowledge dictates that these garden path sentences will slip right past you as the writer, because you know what you were trying to say. You set out reading with the correct interpretation already in your mind.
External editors or third parties can find them more easily, but you should still search them out. By looking for problematic sentences during the revision phase, you practice getting outside your own head and into those of others.
This post is an excerpt from my business writing book, The Workplace Writer’s Process.