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Improve Your Writing Clarity Through These Three Cognitive Learning Principles

There are three important cognitive learning principles that can improve the quality of your writing: cognitive load theory, cognitive bias, and reader expectations. Keeping these principles in mind when you write your paper will ensure that you are effectively communicating your ideas with your readers.

Jeffrey Robens, PhD

Jeffrey Robens, PhD

Senior Editorial Development Manager, Nature Research Academies

PhD, Pharmacology
University of Pennsylvania

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Writing is teaching. When you write a paper, it is because you are trying to share your knowledge with others. That is exactly what teachers do. Therefore, to be an effective writer, it is useful to implement effective teaching strategies in your writing.

There are three important cognitive learning principles that can improve the quality of your writing:

  • Cognitive load theory
  • Cognitive bias
  • Reader expectations.

Keeping these principles in mind when you write your paper will ensure that you are effectively communicating your ideas with your readers.

Cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory was established in 1988 by John Sweller(1) when he wanted to determine how much new information the human mind can process at one time. Not surprisingly — we are not computers — our minds are limited.

If you try to give your readers too much information at one time, they will get confused. If people get confused when trying to understand your article, they will likely stop reading. If this happens, you have lost your opportunity to have impact and influence on the field.

The importance of conciseness

This is why conciseness is so important in academic writing. Your ideas are complex; therefore, feed them to your reader one small spoon at a time.

How long do you think sentences should be? I often ask participants in my workshops this question and most answer between 10 to 20 words. And that is correct. However, in practice, this is rarely done. I often come across sentences that are 30, 60, or even 80 words long!

Keep your sentences short

There are two useful tips to keep your sentences short:

  1. Communicate only one idea per sentence. If you do this, most of your sentences will be an appropriate length.
  2. Avoid unnecessary words. Unnecessary words are those that do not add value to the meaning of the sentence. And there is a simple rule you can follow — can you delete those words without changing the meaning of the sentence? If so, delete them. They are not necessary.

Avoid common phrases

Some common phrases that are not necessary, but often used in academic writing. They include: ‘it is well known that’ ‘as a matter of fact’ ‘it is worth mentioning that’

All these phrases can be deleted without affecting the meaning of the sentence. There are also long phrases that can be replaced by single words as well. For example, ‘that is another reason why’ can be replaced with ‘therefore’, ‘despite the fact that’ can be changed to ‘although’, and ‘it is interesting to note that’ can be simply replaced with ‘interestingly’ or ‘notably’.

Test the length of your sentences and paragraphs

You can test the length of your sentences by reading them aloud. Most people cannot read a sentence with more than 20 words in one breath. So, if you have to take a breath while reading a sentence, it is probably too long.

The same principle applies to paragraphs as well. No one wants to read a paragraph that is the length of a page! Therefore, keep your paragraphs focused on one idea and keep them short. Usually four or five sentences is enough.

Cognitive Bias

The second cognitive learning principle, cognitive bias, is when you assume your readers have the same information or knowledge as you do. They do not. They have different backgrounds, have different educations, are reading different papers, and are researching different topics.

Although the ideas in your head are very clear, they can be ambiguous to your readers. When that happens, they will get confused and stop reading your article. And you have lost impact.

woman thinking

Avoid ambiguous pronouns

So be sure to avoid ambiguous pronouns such as ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘these’, etc.

If you have more than one noun in the preceding sentence, readers will have to guess what ‘this’ refers to. You should never make your readers work harder than necessary to understand your ideas.

For example:

“EGFR phosphorylation resulted in the recruitment and phosphorylation of c-Src. This phosphorylation was dependent on…”

What does ‘This phosphorylation’ refer to? EGFR or c-Src?

The author knows because it is their result, but readers will now have to guess. In this case, it would be clearer to write “The phosphorylation of c-SRC was dependent on…” instead.

Authors overuse pronouns because they worry too much about repetition. Repetition should be avoided if possible, but never at the expense of clarity. In this example, repetition is necessary.

Avoid qualitative words

You should also avoid qualitative words such as: ‘Some’ ‘Few’ ‘Many’.

What is ‘few’ to the author may seem like ‘many’ to the reader. Never assume the readers have the same ideas as you. Academic writing should be quantitative when possible.

For example:

“Few samples experience fractures when exposed to increased pressures…” should be changed to the number of samples for clarity, “Six samples (5.3%) experienced fractures…”

Avoid subjective words

Lastly, avoid subjective words, such as: ‘Interestingly’ ‘Surprisingly’ ‘Strikingly’

For example:

“Interestingly, we noticed that…”

What is interesting to you may not be interesting to your readers. Academic writing is meant to be objective, not subjective. Let your readers make up their own minds what is interesting about your findings.

Reader Expectations

When your readers are starting on their adventure through your story, they do know where you are going to take them. If they become confused along the way, they will likely stop reading your article. Therefore, to be an effective writer, you need to be an effective guide.

To do this, you need to give your readers clues or signs as to where you are taking them. This is called signposting, and there are a number of ways to do this.

The first and simplest way is to use linking words. Below, you will find a table of some useful linking words that can be used to guide readers from one idea to another. When readers see the word ‘however’, they immediately know that the next idea contrasts with the previous one. When readers know what to expect next, they can more quickly understand the next idea.

word table

However (here is my signpost letting you know the next idea contrasts with the one in the previous paragraph), use these linking words sparingly. They can make your writing boring; therefore, they are more like last resorts rather than first options.

Use sentence structure to guide readers

A more useful way to guide your readers is to use sentence structure instead.

Gopen and Swan (2) published a nice article called the Science of Scientific Writing in 1990. It is still an excellent resource for any writer wanting to improve their clarity. One of my favorite concepts from this article was the important role of the topic and stress positions in a sentence.

Using the topic position effectively

The topic position is the first part of the sentence that should introduce the single idea being discussed. Similar to how a topic sentence should introduce the topic of the paragraph to the reader as well. By providing this information in the beginning, the reader knows what to expect in the remainder of the sentence.

Using the stress position effectively

The stress position is the end of the sentence and plays two important roles for the reader. First, it emphasizes what is important about the idea. For example, if I ask you to determine which sentence suggests I will buy you dinner, which would you choose? Sentence one or two?

1. I would like to buy you dinner, but my budget is tight. 2. My budget is tight, but I would like to buy you dinner.

Most people would choose sentence two. But why? Both sentences have the exact same words. All I did was rearrange the words. Because readers focus on the end of the sentence (i.e., the stress position) to determine what is important, most would agree that sentence two suggests you will get a free meal.

You should use the same writing technique in your papers as well. When you want to emphasize what is important about your idea, place it at the end of the sentence. You will then influence your readers just as I did with sentence two above.

But the stress position is also useful for signposting as well.

Let’s look at the following two sentences.

“TiO2 surface modification of the scaffold increased catalytic efficiency. This efficiency was prominent early in the reaction but decreased over time.”

In the first sentence, ‘increased catalytic efficiency’ is the stress position. It emphasizes what was important about the surface modification. Additionally, it is being used for signposting as well.

Before we even read the next sentence, we can assume, based on reader expectations, that the next idea will be about this increased efficiency. And it is. In this case, we do not need to rely on linking words to guide our readers. Efficient sentence structure using both topic and stress positions is sufficient.


In summary, using these three cognitive learning principles – cognitive load theory, cognitive bias, and reader expectations – will considerably improve the clarity of your writing. When your ideas are being clearly delivered to the reader, they will have greater influence and maximize your impact.

Final thoughts

Making a connection with other scholars - including journal editors and reviewers - are the keys to successfully publishing and building impact. Let AJE’s staff of editorial experts help you succeed in your career through English-language editing and various other services. Learn more about achieving simplicity in academic writing here.

About the author

Dr Jeffrey Robens is an experienced publication consultant with an interest in improving academic publishing. He has strong scientific and technical qualifications with 20 years of experience in academia and numerous awards and honors.He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a PhD in Pharmacology and has worked at world-class research institutes in Singapore and Japan. Dr Robens is an experienced scientist, teacher, author, peer reviewer, and editor who is highly competent in educating researchers to effectively communicate their work. He has conducted over 400 academic training workshops worldwide to help researchers and journal editors improve their publication output and impact.


  1. Sweller J. Cognitive Science. 1988; 12: 257–285.
  2. Gopen G and Swan J. American Scientist. 1990; 78: 550–558.

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