Yet Another Difficulty of Writing


Steven Pinker’s written a helpful reminder, in the Wall Street Journal, for writers to strive to consider what they might know about their subjects that their audiences do not:

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 term was invented by economists to help explain why people are not as shrewd in bargaining as they could be when they possess information that their opposite number does not. Psychologists sometimes call it mindblindness. In the textbook experiment, a child comes into the lab, opens an M&M box and is surprised to find pencils in it. Not only does the child think that another child entering the lab will somehow know it contains pencils, but the child will say that he himself knew it contained pencils all along!

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.

The problem has more layers than Pinker lists.  Vocabulary is another form of knowledge that can stand between the writer and the reader.  The challenge is that the right word will often do the work of multiple phrases, so the writer has to choose between words that people may not know (but could look up) and a series of phrases that may transform subtle concepts into long, unwieldy sentences.

A similar complication arises with metaphors and associations.  Highly metaphorical writers (e.g., Herman Melville) can create masterful parallels, in which whole chapters can mean one thing in their literal sense (what’s actually happening), another thing in metaphor (associations that the words evoke), and yet another thing in metaphysics (what the text actually means philosophically).  The problem is that a reader who doesn’t have knowledge of the cultural, religious, or literary associations necessary for the higher meanings will miss them altogether.  Making matters worse, those higher meanings are often the intended purpose of the work — certainly the one the writer finds more interesting.  Therefore, the literal meaning can seem silly or frivolous or a waste of time to read if that’s all there is.  (A bit like life, really.)

Going one step deeper, different worldviews make it even more difficult to communicate, especially when the subject isn’t a technical one, but a social one.  It’s almost the inverse problem to the metaphor challenge.  If a reader starts from a different meaning, he or she may find it difficult to get to the words on the page.  If you’re reading this post with the assumption that I’m really trying to explain why poor people should suffer, minorities and women should be oppressed, and government employees should be enslaved, then you’ll be wondering why I’m spending so much time talking about metaphors rather than just getting to the point and declaring all of the evils that you just know I intend.  At 700 words, this post is a cursory race through the challenges of writing, but it’s an interminably long way for me to go if what I’m really doing is dancing around a belief that women should need men’s approval for all healthcare decisions.

And yet, a writer who constantly repeats things in different ways will invoke the same frustration in readers who are following along just fine.  We get it; get to the point! 

Since some of my favorite authors have long been the ones whose texts are thick with meaning — like puzzles that must be pieced together — I’ve struggled with these problems in my own writing.  The most helpful thing I’ve found has been working in construction for a number of years.  When you’re doing manual labor side-by-side with people of varying education for days on end, the time passes more enjoyably when they can actually understand what you’re saying.

Mark Steyn frequently offers the advice to “don’t just write there, do something.”  Stephen Pinker offers the advice of having other people read your writing before it’s published, preferably people who are more similar to your audience than to you.  I’d combine both men’s excellent advice:  Get to know as many people, and in as many varieties, as possible.

And reread things you wrote long ago, now that you’re a different person, in some ways.

  • Damn the torpedoes, just write!

  • Dan

    “[A] helpful reminder, in the Wall Street Journal, for writers to strive to consider what they might know about their subjects that their audiences do not.”

    Bob Plain can close shop if that’s the writer’s mission.