When Good People Write Badly
Jargon, clichés, technical terms, acronyms, abbreviations: Writers may find them helpful, but readers do not. For Harvard linguist Stephen Pinker, the source of overusing such potentially confounding devices is something called “the curse of knowledge.” He defines this as "a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know”.
As Pinker says in his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, the more proficient people become at a job or hobby, the more they get caught up in the lexicon of that world. The problem arises when they forget that not everyone else is attuned to the same catchwords. Business school grads, he says, can be the worst offenders—transporting their academic buzzwords into the workplace.
To combat the curse of knowledge, Pinker urges writers to become more “considerate” of readers. They can do so by adding a few words of explanation to a technical term, and by offering examples. For instance, a financial advisor mentioning index funds might say…“Index funds are mutual funds that mirror the components of a particular market—for example, Standard and Poor’s 500 stocks. They can limit risk exposure.”
In sum, Pinker advises: “Before sending your writing out to the world, it's better to be honest with yourself about how much your reader is likely to understand a given passage or sentence. Before you commit your writing to print-- or to the internet-- take a few moments to make sure that what you write is clear and understandable by as many of your intended readers as possible.” (Tweet it!)
Do you wish your writing could be clearer? How often do you use explanations, examples, and analogies? To join the conversation, click "comments" above.
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