Is Knowledge Power? Maybe Not So Much

25 April 2013

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Knowledge is power

My husband and I have careers in education, something we strongly believe in, because it enables growth, enhances people’s lives and helps to establish civil society.


In that sense, knowledge is most definitely power.


The curse of knowledge

It’s hard to imagine knowledge having a negative effect. But for writers, that can definitely happen. It’s called the ‘curse of knowledge’.


What does that mean?


The ‘curse of knowledge’ can happen when you’re explaining or writing about something that you’re an expert in to someone who isn’t an expert.


Two negative things can result.


1)   Mental shortcuts

As an expert in something that you’ve practiced or studied for a long time, you often take mental shortcuts when doing it. You’re able to practice a skill or talk about a subject ‘in your sleep’. So when you talk or write about it, it’s easy to skip over essential details.


But your readers may not have the same level of knowledge as you. They might need you to go into greater detail when you write.


2)   Faulty assumptions

Another result of the curse of knowledge happens when you assume that your readers know as much as you do.


You might think, ‘This stuff is so simple! The readers must know it, so why should I elaborate on every little detail?’


Or you might think, ‘If I give every little detail, the reader might be insulted. They might feel like I think they’re stupid!’


No shortcuts – no assumptions

Effective writing takes time. There are no ‘quick tips’ when it comes to writing a well-crafted document, especially one that avoids the traps of the curse of knowledge.


We’ve all heard about the dangers of assumptions (‘making an ass of U and me’).


But an even stronger argument against making assumptions about your reader’s knowledge is that you simply haven’t taken the time to think about them. The same applies to taking mental shortcuts.


How to avoid those traps

To avoid mental shorcuts and faulty assumptions, before you draft a document (even a short email), take enough time to do the following:


·      Think about the people who will read it. Do they have the same level of knowledge as you? (If you’re unsure, write as if they are non-experts.)


·      Write down all the possible questions readers might have about the subject. (Note that experts will have very different questions compared to non-experts.)


·      Jot down answers to those questions.


After you’ve completed your first draft of the document, slowly read it aloud, pausing between sentences. Imagine the reader is sitting there listening. If there’s the smallest chance that they might be looking confused, add more details or explanations to make everything crystal clear.


We’re not mind readers

It’s true that you can’t completely think from another person’s perspective. But as writers, we have to try our best to consider the questions that readers may have in mind as they read our emails, reports and other documents.


Again, this takes time.


The good news is that the time you take to think about your reader’s needs and expectations has a high return on investment. It will ultimately save everyone’s time and help smooth the flow of business.



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