Reading time: About 4 mins.
It might surprise you to learn that the curse of knowledge is not a blessing in disguise. In fact, it’s a considerable disadvantage for writers…
If you’re a writer, you’re probably a know-it-all.
Not in the sense of a 6-year-old bully who says things like, “my dad knows way more about computers than your dad,” or a 16-year-old bully who says, “I’m going to get into Harvard rather than some crummy state-run school — like you.”
Writers become know-it-alls because of the work we do. Think about it: for just about every story, article or blog post you write, you do many minutes — sometimes even hours — of reading. You may also interview experts in the field — until you understand the subject well enough to have an intelligent conversation about it.
Then, you think about your topic. Not just front-of-mind thinking (marked by a determined, single focus) but also back-of-mind thinking, while you’re driving to work or making dinner or going for a walk.
And after that, you spend a significant time writing.
All of this effort and work turns you into a know-it-all on the subject you’re writing about. But it also presents a problem. Suddenly, you have become extraordinarily different from the people you’re writing for. This makes it harder for you to predict the spots in the text that are going to be confusing or raise questions for the reader. In fact, you are too close to your work.
The curse of knowledge strikes again.
Known as a cognitive bias, the curse of knowledge occurs when a person is communicating with others and assumes those others have the background knowledge to understand. The curse of knowledge has probably affected you (as a victim) in many circumstances.
Think about the mechanic who described the problem with your alternator in ways that only someone already experienced with cars could understand…. The cardiologist who told you about a condition she thinks you have but explained in the four- and five-syllable words that you’d never heard of before…. The money guy who described your return on investments in a way that didn’t leave you feeling either grateful or scared – instead, it just left your head spinning…
The term “curse of knowledge” was first used in 1989 by a pair of economists who used it to ….oh, who am I trying to kid? I can’t even understand the Wikipedia entry describing their research. More to my speed is a 1990 experiment by Stanford University grad student Elizabeth Newton. She set the problem to music.
Newton had one group of subjects tap out well-known songs using their fingers and another group listen to identify the tune. (If you’d like to play this game yourself, as a listener, go here.) Believing this should be a straightforward game for listeners to win, tappers predicted listeners would have a 50% success rate. But in a sample of 120 melodies, listeners got it right about three percent of the time. Why? The curse of knowledge. Tappers already had the song in their heads and, for that reason, they figured it would be easy peasy for the listeners to discern. But of course, it wasn’t.
If you want to escape the curse of knowledge with your own writing, there are five steps you can take:
1-Allow yourself plenty of time before you edit. I see so many people who insist on editing while they write or shortly thereafter. This is always a mistake. For long-form projects such as books or dissertations, I always recommend a pause that astonishes most people. I suggest taking at least six weeks before editing. This will give you some distance from your work and give you the chance to develop a useful perspective. If your deadline won’t permit such a break, at the very least, take 24 hours before editing. And most of all, stop editing while you write. Here’s how.
2-Reduce jargon. I once had a contract with a company that used so many acronyms, they required their own acronym dictionary. (Also, they had some acronyms that were exactly the same but referred to two different systems/processes. Crazy-making!) Always consider your audience. If your jargon makes the text easier for your audience to understand, it may be okay. But if it makes it more confusing for them — as it certainly will if your audience includes any outsiders, like the public — then it needs to be edited out. Start with the acronyms but look also for difficult-to-understand concepts or processes.
3-Use stories. In a post in the Harvard Business Review, Chip and Dan Heath describe how FedEx imbues employees with the promise that all packages must “absolutely, positively” arrive overnight. To do this, they tell their workers the story of a New York delivery truck driver whose van broke down and her replacement van was running late. The driver started by delivering a few packages on foot. But, worried that she’d still be unable to finish her route on time, she persuaded a competitor’s driver to take her to her last few stops. A story like that carries far greater weight than a vice-president intoning the need to be “responsible delivery people,” don’t you think?
4-Employ metaphors. You may have needed to understand metaphors for your grade 12 English lit class, but you really need to understand them if you want to be a professional writer. This is because metaphors go beyond explaining things. They can change the way we think on an unconscious level. I blog about metaphors every Thursday. You can flip through some of those posts here. Or consider the 2009 inauguration address by US President Barack Obama. Here is part of what he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” The visual image of someone extending a hand, while another person unclenches a fist makes that statement so much more memorable.
5-Get feedback from others. All professional writers are unembarrassed by using editors. Editors do much more than catch typos and spelling errors. They also address whether our writing is clear, understandable and persuasive enough. Learn about how to hire one here. If you can’t afford an editor, be sure to share your writing with friends and colleagues, asking them to evaluate the understandability of your text. And if they don’t understand it, then rewrite it.
As human beings, we usually think of knowledge as something that’s always positive. Like teenagers experimenting with alcohol, we imagine that more of it will only make us feel better. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way.
Paradoxically, knowledge can bite back at us and become nothing more than a curse.
My video podcast last week considered the possibility of giving up on your writing. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.
Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
How has the curse of knowledge affected you? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!