Drat, Blast, @%#$%! The Curse of Knowledge

Why can’t we just edit and proofread our own writing? We know best what we want to say, right?

Actually, that’s part of the problem. We have information that others don’t have. And we all suffer from the Curse of Knowledge.

Stephen Pinker, a linguist at Harvard University, describes this “chief contributor to opaque writing” in his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details—even when writing for professional peers.

As an editor, I watch out for this. I see it all the time in the work I edit—especially when experts need to reach a broader, general audience or a specific group outside their professional circle.

The curse of knowledge confuses us in general conversation as well. When I mention my Uncle Ed, you envision your own uncle, or an Ed you know. You can’t call to mind my kind, funny, elderly great uncle with the wispy white hair, plaid shirt and suspenders, chewing tobacco, and gravelly voice, the rancher who died many years ago. Unless I describe him for you, of course.

Read more in this excellent article from the Association for Psychological Science.
The Curse of Knowledge: Pinker Describes a Key Cause of Bad Writing

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