The day after I posted on the Mistake of Writing in a Bubble, Justin Taylor posted this brilliant excerpt – I’m totally reblogging it today, because it’s worth resaying, and this time from someone brilliant:
“Steven Pinker—Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary—has a new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. John McWhorter says that “Pinker has written the Strunk & White for a new century.”
Here is an excerpt of an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal:
Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. . . .
The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Pinker asks and answers how we can lift the curse of knowledge:
The traditional advice—always remember the reader over your shoulder—is not as effective as you might think. None of us has the power to see everyone else’s private thoughts, so just trying harder to put yourself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it’s a start. So for what it’s worth: Hey, I’m talking to you. Your readers know a lot less about your subject than you think, and unless you keep track of what you know that they don’t, you are guaranteed to confuse them.
A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them.
The other way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, “What did I mean by that?” or “How does this follow?” or, all too often, “Who wrote this crap?” The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. Advice on writing is not so much advice on how to write as on how to revise.
Much advice on writing has the tone of moral counsel, as if being a good writer will make you a better person. Unfortunately for cosmic justice, many gifted writers are scoundrels, and many inept ones are the salt of the earth. But the imperative to overcome the curse of knowledge may be the bit of writerly advice that comes closest to being sound moral advice: Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mind-set and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person in all spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your reader.