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The curse of knowledge June 28th, 2015 by

Here is some excellent advice on how to write clearly, especially for smallholder farmers.

Steven Pinker writes charming books on language and on the mind, where he manages to explain complex ideas clearly. He is so well read that he branched out and wrote an optimistic book on violence, explaining that regardless of what most people think, the world is getting more peaceful, and Pinker has the numbers to show it.

In most of Pinker’s books at one time or another he ridicules what he calls the  “purists” who correct other people’s English. The purists are often armed with false rules of English grammar.

So when I heard that Pinker had written a style book on proper English writing, The Sense of Style, I just had to read it. Here was a chance to hear the master turn his hand at a genre he usually criticized.

Pinker confesses that he loves style books and has read quite a few. Of all Pinker’s insights into good writing, one really stands out: the curse of knowledge. As Pinker explains, when a person knows something, she assumes, unconsciously that other people know it as well. People who write extensively on one topic may unintentionally leave out so much background that the paper is nearly impossible to understand.

When people write papers for their colleagues, they compress complex ideas into short, dense words and phrases (e.g. airport people say “bird strike” when they mean that an airplane hit a bird). This jargon makes technical writing clear enough for disciplinary specialists, but difficult for the rest of us.

Sometimes a common word takes on a new, jargonized meaning. For example, a market is a concrete place where buyers and sellers come together, to offer food and tools for sale from little booths. But in economics jargon, a market is an abstraction for any arrangement of buying and selling. A “land market” or “a water market” is an imaginary space. When writing for farmers who have not taken Economics at university, it is better to say “you can buy this product in a shop” than to say “the stuff is available in the market or in a shop.”

When my colleagues and I teach technical writing, we weed out most of the agronomists’ jargon, so the text is clear for farmers. We are useful editors simply because we are not cursed with the knowledge that our trainees have.

The best cure for the curse of knowledge, as Pinker explains, is to ask someone else to read your paper. You can never get completely into the minds of your readers, but you can show them your paper and ask them to read it, and comment. This is an especially good way to find out what parts of your prose are confusing.

For a long time at Agro-Insight we have helped people write one page fact sheets for farmer. We share a draft version of the fact sheets with farmers. We call it a “farmer peer review”. We learn so much from these reviews that many of our earlier blogs come from these experiences.

Getting someone, anyone, to read a draft of your paper usually helps you to avoid at least some of the curse of knowledge, because as Pinker puts it, that person’s greatest advantage is that they are not you. Technical writing does not need to be dumbed down, just made clearer.


Related blogs:

A hard write

A spoonful of molasses

Salt blocks and mental blocks

Further Reading

Bentley, J. and Boa, E. 2013. The snowman outline: fact sheets by extensionists for farmers. Development in Practice 23(3), 440-448. Read paper  ›

Pinker, Steven 2014 The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking. 359 pp.

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