Imposing on the reader

It would be nice to think this is clever self-demonstration of the author’s point, but really it’s just bad writing in an otherwise good article.

“A key reason for information’s diminishing or even negative returns is the limited capacity of the brain’s working memory. It can hold roughly seven items (which is why seven-digit phone numbers were a great idea). Anything more must be processed into long-term memory. That takes conscious effort, as when you study for an exam. When more than seven units of information land in our brain’s inbox, argues psychologist Joanne Cantor, author of the 2009 book Conquer Cyber Overload and an emerita professor at the University of Wisconsin, the brain struggles to figure out what to keep and what to disregard. Ignoring the repetitious and the useless requires cognitive resources and vigilance, a harder task when there is so much information.” — I Can’t Think!, by Sharon Begley

I’ve stricken the part of this paragraph that I had to disregard, but there is one of these in nearly every paragraph in the article. No doubt for years someone has been telling journalists this is the way to do it. It isn’t. The way to do it is with a discreet footnote. Journalists should leave out the parts readers replace with “blah blah blah.” Newsweek is lucky anyone is still reading. They shouldn’t make it harder.

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2 Replies to “Imposing on the reader”

  1. Maybe this is part of why blogs are so effective?

    Reformatted for a blog:
    I Can’t Think!
    A key reason for information’s diminishing or even negative returns is the limited capacity of the brain’s working memory. It can hold roughly seven items (which is why seven-digit phone numbers were a great idea). Anything more must be processed into long-term memory. That takes conscious effort, as when you study for an exam. When more than seven units of information land in our brain’s inbox the brain struggles to figure out what to keep and what to disregard. Ignoring the repetitious and the useless requires cognitive resources and vigilance, a harder task when there is so much information.

    Rewritten for a blog:
    I Can’t Think!
    The brain runs out of processing ability at about seven items– seven digit phone numbers were a great idea– and anything more has to be committed to memory, which takes time and effort. (Studying for an exam.) After seven it starts trying to get rid of the less important items, according to Joanne Cantor. Repetition and useless information just make for more clutter that has to be sorted.

  2. I’m starting to believe that no one really recognizes or knows what makes good writing any more. My mom was given a book that got rave reviews from the likes of professional journalists and won awards and it is patently unreadable. Full of paragraphs like the one you quoted. Just awful. I could never read it – I’d never get through and retain any of the story at all.

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