Avoiding the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ Trap

9 May 2013

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I was attracted to an article in the Big Think Blog because of its title (‘Why Writing Fluently is Hard’ by Sam McNerney). In addition to the subject of writing fluently, McNerney also wrote about other ways to avoid falling into the ‘curse of knowledge’ trap, which I wrote about two weeks ago.


The curse of knowledge can lead us to assume that our readers have the same level of knowledge on the subject we’re writing about.


As McNerney said, ‘… everything we write is fluent to us. The challenge is to know how comprehensible a piece of writing is for the reader. This is difficult because it’s nearly impossible for you, the writer, to know what it is like for your reader to not know something you know.’


Here are McNerney’s suggestions on how to avoid the ‘curse of knowledge’ trap.


Suggestion 1: Ask a friend for help

Before sending a document to its intended readers, show it to someone else and ask them if it makes sense. They’ll be able to show you gaps in the information where you may have left out essential details.


Of course, having someone around who has the time to read your documents isn’t always possible. So here are some other suggestions.


Suggestion 2: Step away

After finishing your first draft, step away from it. Go do something entirely different, preferably something that doesn’t require much brainpower – take a short walk, have a long bath, play a game of ping pong – whatever.


The point is – don’t just write a first draft and immediately send it out to the readers. Let it rest, ideally for at least 24 hours. When you come back to it, your eyes and brain will be fresh and you’ll be more likely to see some of the mistakes or information gaps in the document.


Suggestion 3: Print the first draft using a hard-to-read font

A few years ago, I wrote about a study on the best print fonts to use. The researchers discovered that the study participants who read instructions printed in a hard-to-read font style (like Mistral) perceived that the task would be harder and take longer to do than participants who read the same instructions printed in an easy-to-read font (like Arial).


A simpler font helps the reader process the information more easily. So if you want to convince someone to do something for you, write requests or instructions using simple fonts.


However, to force yourself to take more time to notice problems with a document, McNerney suggests that you print out the first draft using a hard-to-read font and work on that document to revise it.


The hard-to-read font will make the text more ‘disfluent’ for you to read. It will slow down your processing and force you to pay attention to the details. The result is that you’ll be able to see mistakes or information gaps more easily.


How the hard-to-read font method helped me revise this post

What an interesting twist! I always give my blog posts a ‘rest’ of at least 24 hours before publishing them. But I’d never tried the hard-to-read font method before. So I tried it out with this article, using the Mistral font.


Before doing this, I had already revised it several times, so I thought that it was good enough to publish. But on reading the Mistral font document, I discovered several more things that needed changing.


Long sentences

Even though I often preach about writing short sentences, I discovered that I wasn’t putting that into practice. I read the post out loud, and discovered that several sentences didn’t pass the ‘breath test’. So I went back and made them shorter.


Unclear purpose

The purpose of this article was to give you more suggestions on how to avoid falling into the ‘curse of knowledge’ trap. But my earlier version didn’t state that explicitly. So I added it.


Unspecific subtitles

The subtitles on each of McNerney’s suggestions needed to be more specific, so I added ‘Suggestion 1 [2] [3]’ to make them easier to see.


Weak opening

In the original post, I started out with some unnecessary information. So I took it out.


I’ve read that it’s often possible to delete up to one-third of a document you’ve written, particularly from the opening paragraphs. This is because it usually takes you time to get started writing, and in the process, you write down a lot of ‘fluff’ that should be removed.


Embarrassed, but happy!

I have to admit that it was embarrassing to discover so many problems in my earlier draft. But I’m thrilled about learning this new method of revising and plan to use it again.


If you have the time, I can heartily recommend that you try the ‘hard-to-read font’ method to revise your writing. And if you do, please let me know how it helped you find mistakes or information gaps.

Copyright 2014 DeGolyer Associates Ltd |  Contact Deborah at:  writewithtaste@me.com