Monday, October 6, 2014

Why your writing doesn't work

Your audience.
Yes, you're guilty -- I'm sure of it. I know, because I'm guilty too, and I do this for a living.

The source of bad writing is your assumption that your reader knows as much as you do. Thus sayeth Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and  chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He writes 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 offers three ways to avoid this trap.
How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice—always remember the reader over 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.

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.

Another  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?"
But don't go overboard. The curse of knowledge, after all, is job security for us editors.

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