Find creative ways to manage the reader’s workload.

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Readers can only keep a few chunks of information in their mind at once. From this fact of cognitive science, we can derive two principles that will improve your legal writing:

  1. Simplify whenever possible. Omit unnecessary material such as weak arguments and irrelevant details. Create context for the details you provide.

  2. Look for creative ways to group information to reduce the reader’s cognitive workload.

Here’s an example of the second principle — grouping information creatively to reduce the reader’s cognitive load. Consider a criminal appeal in which a defendant was convicted of fifteen counts. An appellate judge or clerk does not want to think through fifteen different counts; they will naturally group the counts in their mind to make their task more manageable. Why not preemptively group the counts for the judge?

Watch how this criminal-defense attorney deftly switches from discussing fifteen counts to two groups of counts, and gives each of these groups a memorable name:

The fifteen counts in this case fall into two main categories: the securities counts, which encompass Count Two (securities fraud) and Counts Three through Five and Seven through Ten (false filings), and the lying-to-auditors counts, which encompass Counts Thirteen through Nineteen.

Your writing will be stronger if you write with the reader’s brain — cognitive filters, attention span, biases, etc. — in mind.


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Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.