Main illustration: Kathleen Neeley
Many writers and editors I know spend much of their day working with “subject matter experts.” In tech, they’re the designers, engineers and product managers.
They may not be professional writers, but they’re the exact right people to share their work. A blog post analyzing patterns in data is more meaningful coming from a data scientist with an intimate knowledge of the process. A post about an app is more interesting coming from the person who made it.
The challenge is helping these practitioners write about their work in as clear a way as possible. Knowledge can give you the lens of a microscope and can lead you to some dangerous assumptions about what a reader does and doesn’t know.
This is what’s called “the curse of knowledge,” and it is of particular importance to writers. The more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing. It simply doesn’t occur to many writers that readers don’t know what they know – that they haven’t mastered the subtleties of a topic learned over years of professional experience.
Just ask Elon Musk, who banned all acronyms and technical jargon from communication inside Space X.
— John Collison (@collision) May 25, 2015
Reversing the curse of knowledge isn’t as simple as unringing a bell. An engineer might have decades of daily immersion in shipping code. It’s very difficult to unlearn what you already know. But there are a number of ways to beat the curse of knowledge in your writing.
Assume the reader knows a fair bit less than you
If you’re writing for a medical journal, it’s fair to assume a reasonable amount of specialization among your readership. But if you’re writing articles about say, product management, you will only be able to guess at your audience’s familiarity with the subject matter. Some will have read The Innovator’s Dilemma cover to cover, others will be in the first week of their MBA. The curse of knowledge means we’re more likely to overestimate our reader’s knowledge of our particular area of expertise rather than to underestimate it. “Oh, of course the reader knows the inner workings of agile methodologies.”
The more knowledge a writer has, the less accurate their assumptions will be.
That’s why it’s wiser to assume too little than too much as you write. Assume too much and you’ll be that guy at the party with the inside jokes who nobody wants to sit beside.
At the risk of sounding like Goldilocks, remember that it’s still possible to over-explain too. Assume the reader knows nothing. But don’t assume the reader is stupid.
Get a second opinion
The traditional way of writing is similar to the old Microsoft model of developing software: you write in isolation and then release it as a fully-formed product. Of course, this means that it’s never been tested in the real world. You don’t know what makes sense to your readers and what doesn’t.
Unfortunately, we don’t all live in world where we can afford a focus groups of readers before we hit publish. But you can ask a colleague, a friend or, even better, a family member, to read over what you’ve just written. They’ll likely have the necessary distance required to tell you that they don’t really understand what you’re saying.
That doesn’t mean you should take every last suggestion – great writing rarely happens by committee. But do take it seriously when someone tells you certain sections are too inward looking or confusing.
Two screenwriters once walked into a Hollywood producer’s office and said three words: “Jaws in space.” Dozens of startups were funded on the simple pitch: “Uber for X.” Both work on the power of analogy. They make it possible for readers to understand a complicated concept by invoking concepts people already know. When you’re trying to explain something that you think the reader might struggle with, try to use an analogy that puts tangible, everyday objects in its place.
Sending product announcements without considering your audience is like writing a love letter and then addressing it “to whom it may concern”.
Organizations that produce high-value transactional output (HVTO) should deliver personalized messages targeted at individual customers.
Again, a word of caution. Analogies are like forklift trucks. When used correctly they do a lot of heavy lifting, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll likely cause some major damage.
Get some distance from your first draft
I remember reading a fantastic piece of advice from Stephen King on his approach to writing. Like dough between kneadings, you should let your writing rest in until you have sufficient distance to see it objectively. Simply putting your writing aside for a while gives you the perspective required to spot any glaring holes in what you’ve just written.
Becoming your own intended, dispassionate audience is key to overcoming the curse of knowledge, and can also be helped by:
- Printing out your writing. An “outsider” perspective comes easily by seeing your writing in a form other than the one you wrote it in. When you edit and revise on paper, awkward or unclear phrasing will jump out at you much more, and your eyes won’t be tempted to skim the page as quickly as they will on the screen.
- Reading it aloud. Reading out loud helps you write in a way that reflects your speech patterns and generally makes you sound more human. As you read aloud, pretend you’re talking to a real person and ask yourself “Would I say this to someone in real life?”
Ultimately, the antidote to the curse of knowledge is to remember and obey the golden rule of clear writing: speak your reader’s language. You don’t need complex sentences to express complex ideas, so don’t hide your valuable expertise behind nouns, buzzwords, and other garbage.