Steven Pinker on the Curse of Knowledge and Writing Better - Deepstash
Professional Writing: The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge, suffered by many authors, is the inability to think like the less-informed layperson who is going to read the content.

  • Professional writing is filled with all kinds of ‘ese’, legalese, academese etc. which makes it unrelatable and unclear, confusing or boring the reader.
  • Writers are not aware that they need to simplify, clarify and be in the shoes of their readers.

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A big vocabulary basket is like the only ‘tangible skill’ the writer has, and it never occurs to them that they should use simple words instead.

The writer should focus on clarity instead of impressing others with professional-sounding words that cloud any real understanding.

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Using examples or analogies is a powerful and necessary technique to make the common reader relate to abstract content. Analogies are also retained by the memory for a longer time than raw, professional content with big words.

Messy writing is also due to chunking, a mental process in which the writer groups similar concepts together in the brain. While this is a great ability which proves how intelligent the writer is, the readers do not have the same chunks inside their brain.

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Sometimes writers invent confusing and bewildering terminology to explain plain and simple concepts. This is because their years of familiarity with such concepts makes them part of a bubble, in which they believe everyone would understand their vocabulary.

Example: Doctors often use jargon as they diagnose problems and converse with other doctors. This special vocabulary seems alien(and sometimes impressive) to the patient who does not have a clue.

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  1. Do not use abstractions, and go for real, concrete nouns and everyday words.
  2. Assume that the reader knows less than you do and explain as you would to a newbie.
  3. Get someone to read your work and take feedback.
  4. Write down a draft and wait a while to come back and review it, reading it aloud. You will start to clarify your own writing.

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