Steven Pinker, On Writing Well

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More on the “curse of knowledge,” or the blind spot that prevents experts from being aware of what novices don’t know. Steven Pinker talked about the concept in a recent presentation about good writing (the subject of his next book), as reported by Chuck Leddy in the Harvard Gazette:

“Pinker believes ‘we can [write] better today, by using the science of language’ to understand how to better engage readers. He advocated a ‘classic style’ that puts the needs of readers first, with ‘the goal to help the reader see reality’ through a more concrete and ‘conversational style.’ In the classic style, Pinker explained, ‘the writer points to things in the world the reader can see,’ rather than building abstraction atop abstraction. The writer has, most of all, ‘an obligation to see through the [written] words to see what they represent.’ If writers don’t understand their deeper meaning, readers have no chance.Why is it so difficult to write well? Pinker described the primary culprit as ‘the curse of knowledge,’ which he defined as ‘the failure to understand that other people don’t know what we know.’ Pinker recommended a few methods to ‘exorcise’ this curse, including ‘remember it as a handicap to overcome’ and ‘show a draft [of your writing] to a representative reader’ to see if it’s comprehensible. If it’s not, revise for clarity.

Pinker made a final suggestion to those seeking to improve their writing. Take a piece of writing (a book, an article, etc.) that you deem exemplary and ‘re-engineer it,’ meticulously examining its component parts in order to understand exactly how the writer constructed it. Writing is an all-important skill, said Pinker, one ‘many people consider the signature accomplishment of a university education,’ and we can do it better.” (Read more here.)

This last suggestion is one I often gave to my writing students at Yale—I called i “reverse outlining.” It involves taking a finished piece of work and outlining it so you can see its architecture, how it was put together. It’s a technique that was taught to me by my first editor and it’s very, very useful.

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