I read a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “The Source of Bad Writing” by Stephen Pinker. In the article, Mr. Pinker describes the biggest roadblock when it comes to writing (or any type of communication) well. There is something called the “Curse of Knowledge” and that arises when the communicator either doesn’t realize or doesn’t address the issue that knowledge he or she has is not necessarily the same level of knowledge resting in the heads of their audiences. What they take as “givens”, are in fact not.
In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it’s often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.
As a scientist, I can think of countless instances of this. In fact, they are rather obvious. Head to just about any university lecture, and you’ll get a prime example. As Mr. Pinker points out, in highly technical professions (like science) it’s common to find a person who either writes or presents work that is inappropriate for a given audience. The words are so over the audience’s head, so technical, filled with abbreviations and terms only fellow scientists would understand, that the presentation or publication is a complete waste of everyone’s time. The audience gets nothing out of it and many times, the speaker or writer finishes, completely unaware that the audience has no idea what was just said.
I think this is a big problem for experts (writers, speakers, etc.) in every field, and I find it astonishing that so few people are aware of the problem. Countless articles in the media report about the general public ignorance when it comes to science, mathematics, and engineering. A classic example of this is “climate change”, a topic so controversial largely in part because those who claim themselves “experts” in the field do such a remarkably poor job explaining what is known and unknown (and probably because the public prefers to jump on bandwagons rather than spending any effort trying to understand it). So should we be surprised that writers and speakers find it difficult to communicate topics these days?
Now that I’m returning to fiction writing after years of scientific training, I find that the same problem exists, just in a slightly different form. Although fiction writing is largely free of technical jargon, at least within the pages themselves, the problem remains. I, as the author, am fully aware of all the conflicts, outcomes, inner struggles, emotions, plot twists, and reactions throughout the book (I know that is not the case with every writer, but it is true for we “plotters”). So it is very easy to assume the reader knows something about my heroine, when in fact I haven’t yet revealed it on paper. It’s also challenging to set up a scene in which you know the outcome but have to write it as if you don’t. This is why you have lots of third parties examine your work – because you can never critique your own work as well as you could someone else’s – but is that the only solution?
It surprises me that this problem seems so universal and yet so few are aware of it. The bottom line seems the well-used phrase “remember your audience”, but it isn’t always as simple as that or everyone would do it without a second thought. Do you think this is due to a general laziness in communicators or a general decrease in knowledge by most audiences?
Have you encountered the “Curse of Knowledge” in your profession? If you are an author, is this something you struggle with? Why does it seem more prevalent today?