Cognitive Assessment

Classic Prose Is Simple, Not Simplistic

Simple words, carefully arranged, stick in the memory and influence action long after they have been read. Let us consider three pithy one-liners written by masters of the classic style.


Marie de Rabutin‐Chantal, Madame de Sévigné (1626– 1696)

I fear nothing so much as a man who is witty all day long.


Here Madame de Sévigné jolts us into delightful awareness of a truth we have always felt but never articulated. Furthermore, she has shown us the great honor of trusting us to apply the appropriate scope to her generalization about the dangers of too much wit. To challenge her on her wording—that chronically witty men could not possibly frighten her more than ferocious beasts, incurable disease, and invading soldiers—breaks the spell of her obvious hyperbole and displeases the Madame.

François VI
Duc de La Rochefoucauld
(1613–1680)

The refusal of praise is but the wish to be praised twice.

With maximum efficiency and minimum effort, La Rochefoucauld performs verbal jujitsu on the excessively modest. Stop making yourself the center of attention, he says. Don’t be so awkward about letting people be nice to you. Just thank the person and be done with it.

Blaise Pascal
(1623–1662)

I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.

Pascal’s oft-quoted apology could have been utterly forgettable (e.g., “Sorry about the long letter, but I did not have enough time to edit it properly.”). It achieved immortality because Pascal has skillfully led us to expect one thing and then surprises us with another. In this manner, a rather mundane observation—that editing for brevity is hard—feels fresh and insightful.

These examples of classic prose have a style of humor that does not belong in assessment reports, but they are nevertheless instructive. The three writers have noticed that even qualities that seem unambiguously positive—wit, modesty, and brevity—have hidden dangers, shortcomings, and costs. Assessment professionals, too, see the downsides of certain virtues and the hidden sense in what appear to be self-defeating behaviors. Similar to these masters of classic style, assessment professionals can make messages memorable with surprise, irony, and contrast:

  • Daniel is never comfortable, except when he is worrying. Worry helps him plan. Worry keeps him safe. To ask Daniel to stop worrying is to ask him to invite catastrophe.
  • Art and Lannie love each other so fiercely that 20 years of quarreling could not tear them apart.
  • Although Jackson intimidates other children, he is in some ways more afraid than they are. No one fears the bully more than the bully himself.
  • If Gina were more frightened of germs, she would not wash her hands so often. Her skin, rubbed raw from years of constant scrubbing, no longer protects her from infections.
  • For many years, procrastination has helped Karla be the productive person she is today. Procrastination may have its downsides, but it has been her partner in combating a worse problem: perfectionism. Her motto is “The task expands to fit the time allotted.” Only looming deadlines have had the power to focus her mind and reshuffle her priorities to work efficiently. Recently, however, this strategy has backfired dramatically …

It would strike the wrong tone if the entire report were ironic in this way, but a few memorable sentences might change a person’s life.

Excerpt from pp. 35–37 of Schneider, W. J., Lichtenberger, E. O, Mather, N., & Kaufman, N. L. (2018). Essentials of Assessment Report Writing (2nd ed). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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