Help readers recall your message
When you organize your copy logically, readers can read it more easily and get more out of it.
Or so says Bonnie J. F. Meyer, Ph.D., professor of Educational Psychology at Penn State University. She completed a five-year research project for the National Institute on Aging to find out what helped adults understand and remember what they’d read.
One element that made a big difference: the structure of the piece.
Ya gotta schemata
The reason: People have mental frameworks — aka schemata — that they’ve built through experience and instruction. These mental frameworks provide a skeletal structure for organizing information as they read. (Anderson, 1977; Rumelhart, 1975)
The clearer the writer’s framework, the easier it is for readers to place new information into their own schematas. Otherwise, information just comes across as a list of facts, which people can only recall through rote memorization.
Here’s how, according to Meyers, that you can use structure to help people read your piece faster and remember it longer:
Follow a “topical plan.”
People read faster and remember more information that’s logically organized than they do when the same information is disorganized. (Kintsch, Mandel and Kozminsky, 1977)
Help them read faster. In one study, for instance, researchers gave half of the participants 1,400-word narrative passages and asked them to write a summary. The other half read the same information but with the content scrambled.
The summaries were much the same, but the scrambled versions took much longer to read. Readers needed the extra time to unscramble the content.
Help them remember longer. In another study, junior college students read two texts. Then they wrote down whatever they remembered, first right after reading, then again one week later.
Those who recognized and used the author’s structure to organize their memories retained far more content. They remembered the main ideas especially well, even a week later, and recovered more specific details, as well.
Those who didn’t use the author’s structures made disorganized lists of seemingly random ideas and couldn’t recover either the main ideas or the details very well. (Meyer, Brandt and Bluth 1980)
Choose a familiar structure.
Here are five structures that work, Meyers says:
|Antecedent and consequence||Show cause and effect, if … then.||A bylined editorial may use this approach.|
|Comparison||Present two or more opposing viewpoints.||Political speeches often use this approach.|
|Description||Develop the topic by describing its component parts, such as attributes, specifications or settings.||Newspaper articles, for instance, explain who, what, when, where, why and how.|
|Response||Organize by remark and reply, question and answer or problem and solution.||Case studies focus on problem, solution, results.|
|Time-order||Relate events or ideas chronologically.||Company profiles often use this approach.|
The descriptive plan, the one used by newspapers, is least effective at helping people remember, according to Meyer’s early research. In two studies, participants were more likely to remember information from comparative and antecedent/consequence pieces than from descriptive stories — both immediately after reading and again a week later.
Using a solid structure is always essential. But it’s particularly important if you’re writing to younger readers, adults with lower reading skills and people who are unfamiliar with the subject.
Source: Bonnie J. F. Meyer, “Reading Research and the Composition Teacher: The Importance of Plans, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, No. 1 (February 1982), pp. 37-49