Things that look better actually work better: A guide for students

The below is a slightly edited version of an announcement I just posted for my COM 110 students at CUNY. Credit where credit’s due: this is all me channeling my advisor, Dr. Paula Petrik, who taught me the value of an easy, clean text.


As you are working on your first major assignment, I would like to share with you something that will almost definitely improve at least some of your grades, not just on this assignment, or in this class, but throughout your entire college career, and beyond. It sounds silly, but I guarantee you it works.

I know this announcement is going to be a bit long, and I want to apologize. But I guarantee you, the information I’m giving you here is worth it. 

It’s a seemingly simple little thing, but I cannot overstate how important this is: Things that look better actually work better. Or at least people are more likely to perceive them as working better.

Let me explain:

In the mid-90s, two researchers from Japan, Masaaki Kurosu from the University of Japan and Kaori Kashimura from Hitachi, were doing research on user experience. They had subjects use 26 different user interfaces to get money from an ATM. These ATM interfaces were purposely designed to go along a spectrum, from technically efficient but ugly to visually pleasing but inefficient. They then had the subjects rate how the machines looked and how they worked. 

You might think that the people in the test would prefer the bare-bones, ugly, but efficient machines. But in fact, they preferred the better looking machines, despite their being (very deliberately) poorly designed in terms of utility. The study found that people think that good-looking things work better, even if it’s very much not the case. 

By now, many of you are likely asking, “why is my Digital Literacy professor talking about ATM designs?” Here’s the thing: this applies to your homework and your papers, too. The easier you make your work to read, the better the grades you will find you get with it. 

And I’m not just saying that because I’m a weird prof with a burr in my saddle about design. You will find that this is true of all of your professors, and at work as well. People have an unconscious bias toward aesthetically pleasing things. This includes all of your professors, who at the end of the day just want to quickly and easily get through your paper and give you as many points as they possibly can. It applies to your boss and your coworkers, too.

We all like to talk about valuing substance over style, but at the end of the day, that’s just something we like to tell ourselves, because it feels like our priorities are in the right place. 


On a practical level, what does this mean in terms of your current assignment, and your future assignments?

  1. Paragraph breaks are very useful. Use them thoughtfully and frequently. They break up your ideas, and give visual clues to what you are saying. 
  2. Likewise, keep most of your sentences short and concise. Long, run-on sentences confuse the reader. Don’t make your grader, or your reader generally, go hunting for your point!
  3. While it is good to be somewhat more formal, especially in papers and bigger projects, stick to language with which you are comfortable. Don’t use idioms that you aren’t 100% certain of, and try to keep it straightforward. Avoid purple or flowery language. The Federal plain language guidelines are worth looking at for advice on how to keep your prose straightforward and easily readable.
  4. Include a thesis statement in your paper. Tell the reader what you are arguing, clearly, in a sentence or two. That sentence should preferably be at the end of the first paragraph. Because that’s where people will be looking for it. 
  5. To that end, formula is your friendThe five-paragraph theme can be formulaic and boring, yes, but it is also a good starting point. Any teacher will instantly recognize it, or a variation on it. Similarly, there are formulas for different types of letters and emails, different types of memos, documents, resumés… You don’t have to follow them religiously, but be aware of them, and know if you are sticking to what is expected or subverting it.
  6. Leave breadcrumbs for your reader. An essay for a class shouldn’t be full of surprise twists. Let your reader have an idea of where they are going at the beginning of the essay and then give clues about where things are going throughout the essay. By priming the reader’s pump, as it were, you prepare them for what comes next. You help them read the essay, and they will in turn find it easier to read.
  7. Formatting matters! Once you have completed an assignment, make sure that it is formatted correctly. Blackboard has a bad habit of inheriting formatting information when you copy-paste from somewhere else. My personal solution to this is to copy and paste everything into a plain text file  in TextEdit (Mac) or Notepad (Win) before copy-pasting into Blackboard. It’s a pain, but it fixes the problem. In this way, you can avoid weird text, off background colors, and that thing that forces readers to scroll right forever before your line breaks.
  8. Do as I say, don’t do as I do. I’ve got a ton of bad writing habits, and you can catch me breaking all of these rules at times here. Just believe me that it really will help…

This is something that nobody ever explained to me until I was in a PhD program, and it had a profound impact on my writing. So much that I turned in as an undergrad could have been so much better received if I had kept these principles in mind. 

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