This is the 4th is a series of posts questioning the current challenge of applying cognitive fluency to plain language writing.
I introduced earlier a paper written to summarize the current situation and discuss cognitive fluency applied to legal writing. And the Winner Is: How Principles of Cognitive Science Resolve the Plain Language Debate Julie A. Baker Associate Professor of Legal Writing, Suffolk University Law School Social Science Research Network: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1915300
I will summarize now what I quoted last week and add my personal opinions. In my next post, I will begin to tackle the principles of cognitive fluency.
The classical approach to persuasion set the communication pattern as a triad of audience-purpose-message and this paradigm was being taught to us when I started in plain language in 1989. According to Baker’s construction of history this was replaced by the new rhetoric. The new rhetoric saw writing as a conversation between the writer and the reader. She says the new rhetoric focused on brevity and clarity to improve reader comprehension.
Baker also sets out five theses she claims were incorporated from classical rhetoric into the new rhetoric:
(1) Writing is recursive rather than linear.
(2) Writing is rhetorically-based.
(3) Writing is evaluated according to how well it serves the writer’s intent.
(4) Writing is a creative activity that can be analyzed, described, and taught.
(5) Teaching writing is well-served by linguistic research and research into the composing process.
Nowhere in her list do we find the reader. Baker says the new rhetoric evolved to become the platform for plain language. And the plain language movement introduced the concern for making writing understandable for the reader. It seems obvious to plain language writers that a conversation needs 2 participants.
In general, I can accept her vision of an evolution from the earliest communication triad to the current plain language approach. Through discussions with others in plain language, I believe we now need redefine our plain language paradigm to describe how we seek to align the purposes of both writer and reader and to merge their challenges and constraints in order to ensure a clear and mutual understanding of their conversation.
I am, however, concerned that insisting on using evaluation methods to ensure understanding should not be the end of the argument about what plain language is. In the last 30 years, there has been much scientific discovery that can tell us what will make our writing easy to understand. It will enlighten us about reader’s cognitive patterns and needs. It will also help us to modify writing to suit specific purposes: learning, remembering, analyzing, problem-solving, decision-making, and judgment. The application of the current learning is a challenge to us. Taking the research further and applying it to writing is a challenge for neuroscientists and cognitive psychology, but I think we need to bring this to their attention.
When a law is in place penalizing people for not writing to be understood, shouldn’t we learn what science can tell us about how people understand?