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The curse of knowledge: the root of incomprehensible writing

Bryan Garner tells participants in his seminars that good writing makes the reader feel smart, while bad writing makes the reader feel stupid. What is the root of this kind of bad writing? Mark Herrmann has an idea about that, drawn from cognitive scientistSteven Pinker: we think that our readers already know what we are trying to tell them. Pinker calls this phenomenon “the curse of knowledge.”

So what is the cure for this affliction? Herrmann recommends empathy for the reader. “Put yourself in the reader’s state of ignorance,¨ he counsels, “and write for that audience.” Pinker suggests testing your draft one people who don’t already know what you’re trying to tell them:

A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them.

Garner has a similar recommendation in The Winning Brief, at least for cases where the amount at stake is worth the expense: Convene a focus group of lawyers unfamiliar with the case to play the part of appellate judges by reading and reacting to your draft brief. This exercise has many benefits. One of them is to tell you whether the curse of knowledge has infected your brief.

(Cross-posted on The (New) Legal Writer.)

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