Today I received my copy of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Judging by the notes on the dust cover, it should be good. Pinker is a cognitive scientist with solid writing credentials (e.g. chair of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel). As a cognitive scientist, he brings a perspective that I haven’t seen in other books on how to write.
If you are a lawyer, then you are a professional writer. If you read this blog, you already know that. I am not yet ready to endorse this book, because I haven’t read it yet. But as a professional writer, are you on the lookout for books like this? If not, you should be.
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.