Nonfiction Writers: Beware the Curse of Knowledge
Today’s guest post is excerpted from Writing to Be Understood by Anne Janzer (@AnneJanzer) a professional writer who has worked with more than one hundred technology companies, writing in the voice of countless brands and corporate executives.
Few of your readers care about what you know, no matter how many years you have spent accumulating that wisdom. They care about what they need or want to understand.
You share much in common with your readers: you both live a world with numerous, competing demands on your attention, limited time for “deep reading,” and perhaps a longing for simplicity and clarity.
How do you provide the right amount of information without either oversimplifying the subject or overloading the reader? You’ll have to decide what to include and what to leave out. The more you love your subject, the harder this decision can be.
Beware the curse of knowledge
Think of a well-known, familiar song, like “Happy Birthday” or “Jingle Bells.” Sing it to yourself in your head. Then, find a friend and ask them to guess the song as you tap out its rhythm.
You won’t expect them to get it right away, but you might be surprised and frustrated by how long it takes them to correctly guess the tune rattling around in your head. At least, that’s what psychologist Elizabeth Newton found when she tested this very thing.
In 1990, Newton was a graduate student in psychology at Stanford University. She conducted an experiment in which half of the participants (the tappers) were asked to tap out the rhythms of common songs, while the other half (the listeners) guessed the songs. The tappers estimated how long it would take the listeners to name the right tune.
The people tapping were inevitably surprised by the listeners’ inability to hear the tune that matched the rhythm. It seemed obvious to the tappers. This study illustrates a phenomenon known as the curse of knowledge, or the challenge of getting out of our own heads.
Once we know something, it’s difficult to remember not knowing it. We take our knowledge for granted.
We can spot other people suffering from the curse of knowledge pretty easily. We’ve all seen it:
- The physician who speaks in medical terms you don’t know
- The academic author who writes a paper, intended for a general audience, filled with terms that only a graduate student would understand
These people aren’t trying to hoodwink or confuse you. They simply forget that you don’t know what they know. It’s much harder to detect symptoms of this tendency in our own behavior. When smart, caring people write incomprehensible stuff, the curse of knowledge is usually to blame. It plagues experts who write for the layperson, or the industry insider addressing an outsider. Of course, a few knowledgeable and expert communicators avoid the curse of knowledge with apparent ease, but let’s consider them outliers and confess that the rest of us struggle with it. The greater your knowledge, the stronger the curse.
Nonfiction writers confront this problem in many phases of the work. For example, we cannot proofread our own work effectively because we already “know” what’s on the page. We use terminology that readers don’t know because it is habitual to us. You can defeat the curse of knowledge during later phases of the work by enlisting others for editing and proofreading. But you must avoid the curse earlier still, when deciding what to cover and how to approach it. Get outside your own head.
Go wide or go deep
Before you write a single word, you face a fundamental decision about exactly what you want and need to cover. Answer these three questions.
- Breadth: Will you cover a single issue or a wide range of topics?
- Depth: Should you dive into details? How many are necessary?
- Background: How much does the reader already know, and how much will you need to backfill?
These decisions depend almost entirely on your readers. For a distinct, well-defined audience, you may be able to cover a wider range of concepts related to your topic. When addressing a general audience, you may choose to focus on the most important things, and avoid excessive detail.
The final form also matters. A book gives you more room to roam; readers expect a greater breadth or depth of coverage.
If you are expert in a topic, you may choose to cover it in great detail. For example, masterful biographers like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Walter Isaacson do deep dives into their subjects’ lives, creating works that span several hundred pages. If that’s your approach, you will need to dedicate time and effort to maintaining the reader’s interest. The depth of a treatment can narrow the potential audience of readers.
For some books, breadth is part of the essential value, as in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. As the title promises, it describes a massive topic in a slim volume. Tyson went wide, not deep. Writing about complex topics effectively at this level is a rare skill. Tyson deploys analogies with care, frames the content in a human context, and shares his personal enthusiasm and sense of wonder to guide the reader through the universe. The book is a masterful example of writing about a complex and abstract topic.
There’s no easy answer to the question of how broad or deep your treatment should be. It depends on your purposes and the needs of your audience.
Self-indulgent writers include everything they feel like covering. Thoughtful writers who seek to be understood focus on fit and purpose. Sometimes you have to let things go or put them aside for another project. Focus on serving your reader.
Simplicity vs. oversimplification
Designers, businesspeople, and others often refer to of the KISS principle, which is an acronym for Keep It Simple, Stupid.
As a design philosophy, Keep It Simple, Stupid makes sense. Don’t create systems that are more complex than necessary. However, people mistakenly apply the KISS mantra as a filter in other fields, including political messaging, sales materials, and descriptions of technology.
Simplicity isn’t always the answer. The KISS mantra can become a convenient excuse for hiding complexity that you would rather people not see, such as:
- Removing transparency from investments, because investors don’t need to know the possible risks
- Not disclosing details of policies because voters won’t bother with the fine print
- Not communicating to patients the complete range of treatment options available or the potential risks of a recommended course of action, for fear of delaying the preferred course of treatment.
Taken to the extreme, the KISS mantra shields us from the complexity that we should understand. Certain readers crave simplistic explanations or easy answers that spare them the cognitive work of understanding things that don’t hold their interest. Others, however, may suspect that you’re hiding important details or talking down to them.
When explaining complicated topics, beware of the boundary between simplicity and oversimplification. We want to believe that the world is simple enough for us to understand. We like to think that we don’t need layers of experts arbitrating between reality and ourselves, but when we ignore the true complexity of situations, we can inadvertently mislead readers.
Sabine Hossenfelder has heard some pretty wild theories about physics—hypotheses that she believes arise from the oversimplification of scientific topics for the general public. Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, and writes about physics for publications like Forbes and Scientific American. She is also author of the book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray.
Her insight into the dangers of oversimplification, however, arises from years spent running a “Talk to a Scientist” consulting service, which she started as a graduate student and still maintains today on her blog, BackReaction. For a small fee, members of the public can pose questions about physics, neuroscience, geology, and other topics, or submit their own ideas about physics. Those theories are creative, interesting, and often not grounded in scientific reality.
She blames this, in part, on the tendency of journalists covering the field to simplify the message so much that they mislead readers.
In describing the experience of running the physics help line, she reports, “The most important lesson I’ve learned is that journalists are so successful at making physics seem not so complicated that many readers come away with the impression that they can easily do it themselves. How can we blame them for not knowing what it takes if we never tell them?”
Deciding what to include
Deciding what to cover and what to leave out challenges everyone. Writers, speaking coaches, and others share their advice about striking the right balance.
When you’re an insider in an industry, seek advice from those who are outsiders. Just make sure you find the right people to ask.
Linda Popky could be considered a Silicon Valley insider. She was named a Top 100 Women of Influence by the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, and works with tech companies as the founder and president of Leverage2Market Associates. She’s also the author of the book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing That Matters.
When writing about topics in which she has expertise, Popky takes care to counteract her insider status. “There are two dangers to knowing your subject matter well. First, you think everyone else knows it already, and as a result, no one understands what you write. Or, you think that nobody knows this stuff, and you go into excruciating detail.”
She handles the situation by finding other people to give her an outsider’s perspective. The key, says Popky, is getting feedback from the right individuals. “You need people who understand the audience and provide the right level of feedback at the right time. Find individuals who can express themselves and identify when something doesn’t work for them. They need the honesty to say if something is confusing.”
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