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 scientist Steven 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 on 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.
We writers say we want more praise for our work, but, when it comes, we are often not ready to accept it. We are better at absorbing the blows of negative criticism, perhaps because we suffer from the impostor syndrome, that fear that this is the day that we will be found out, exposed as frauds, banished to law school.
Dear friends: Because of the high volume of spam comments I get, I hold all comments for approval. TypePad is supposed to send me an e-mail whenever someone comments, to alert me to either publish the comment or mark it as spam. For some reason, I’ve been missing those e-mails, at least until one finally came through today. When I clicked through to approve the comment, I discovered several others awaiting approval, some for several weeks or longer. So if you left a comment that sat in limbo for longer than 24 hours (much longer in many cases), please accept my apology.
Tonight I had a pleasant surprise. While attending a fund-raiser for the New Orleans St. Vincent dePaul Society, I ran into my old English teacher from high school, Father J. Godden Menard, C.M. My high school was a minor seminary with a tiny student body, fewer than 50 every year I was there. Yet I received an extraordinary education in writing, with Fr. Menard as a teacher all four years. In my freshman year, we were taught everything we would ever need to know about grammar. The other three years, we just learned how to write. For example, we covered parallel construction in my sophomore year. We were constantly writing short essays. By necessity, we learned how to structure paragraphs. Today, I still apply the lessons I learned from Fr. Menard.
Here is a picture of our little reunion. Thank you, Father Menard.