How Too Much Knowledge Can Hurt Your Writing Career

How Too Much Knowledge Can Hurt Your Writing Career

“The curse of knowledge” may sound like something out of a cheesy movie, but it’s as real as it gets — and if you’re not able to avoid it in your writing, it could hurt your business.

The curse of knowledge is the inability to see yourself in a novice’s shoes.

No matter how brilliant your writing is, it won’t matter if you don’t give your audience a chance to understand it. Your expertise allows you to speak with authority, but using jargon and advanced language will alienate readers with less experience.

Right about now, you may think this problem doesn’t concern you, that you know your stuff, that you’re great at explaining your subject. So did I — before I realized how my knowledge affected my writing career.

The curse of knowledge: A case study

Most of my writing career revolves around WordPress. I have a number of WordPress-related articles on the web, and I published a book called WordPress 3.7 Complete. I know WordPress.

Most of the time, this helps me because I don’t have to look too deeply to find an idea or an angle when writing a new article. But other times it stabs me right in the back.

Eventually, I realized that because of my experience with WordPress, I was often failing to address those readers who don’t have the same experience — which alienates them from my writing.

How did I find out? I took a look at the comments readers were leaving. In complex posts, readers left fewer comments and only referred to the simplest elements of the article. The easier to grasp the language, the more in-depth and detailed the comments were. In other words, people understood and enjoyed the simple approach more than the complex one. It’s similar to Derek Halpern’s analysis of the research showing that using longer, complex words actually makes people think you’re less intelligent.

If I’m not careful, my knowledge of WordPress could actually prevent me from effectively conveying my ideas. And as a person building my reputation based on my skill in the WordPress niche, this could be a serious obstacle in my career path.

Does your writing pass the grandma test?

Not sure if you’re suffering from the curse of knowledge or not? Here’s a simple way to find out.

Call your grandma and give her a piece of your writing. After she reads it, ask her to share her understanding of the core message. How close are her impressions to the message you wanted to share? [bctt tweet=”Does your grandma understand your writing? If not, you need to revise.”]

This simple test gives you a quick indication of whether you need to elaborate on a concept or give a little more background explanation.

Introducing new concepts without drowning in jargon

Ok, so your grandma should be able to grasp the basic message you’re trying to convey. But what if you need to explain industry jargon?

Using a bit of jargon in your writing is okay, even necessary, to fully introduce someone to a new topic. But if you use too much of it, you’ll lose your message — and your audience’s interest — in the process.

Here’s a prime example of the curse of knowledge. Both of these videos attempt to explain gravity to the layperson; which one is more successful?

This video features slick footage and well-known scientists, but it’s 44 minutes long and addresses additional concepts related to gravity. It’s interesting, but isn’t going to hold most people’s attention for very long.

 

Contrast that video with this high school teacher’s workshop, in which he manages to explain the complicated idea of gravity in less than 10 minutes. He’s not using any difficult or technical language. He’s illustrating the concept instead of blasting the audience with scientific jargon, which makes his demonstration engaging and interesting.

Aim for your writing to be like the second video. Here are two simple steps to help you avoid the curse of knowledge.

Step 1: Be aware

You can’t cure yourself of a bad habit if you don’t know you have one, right?

Being aware is half the battle.

Now that you know the curse of knowledge exists, keep an eye out for it as you edit your work. Whenever you finish writing a piece, read through it and try to identify the parts that could potentially be hard to understand for the average reader. If you’re not sure, have a less-experienced friend or colleague take a look — or give your grandma a call.

Step 2: Better yourself

A famous saying often attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

This is a bit confusing, since by definition, the curse of knowledge affects people with knowledge. So a lack of thereof shouldn’t be among the causes, right?

The explanation is in our usual learning patterns. Regardless of the topic you want to master, you’ll go through the same phases:

  1. You start by acknowledging that you know nothing about the topic

  2. You devour all the information you can find, and after a short period of time you think that you know everything there is to know on the topic

  3. You realize how many gaps there are in your understanding and experience a letdown

  4. You begin growing your knowledge, conscious of all there is left to discover

The curse of knowledge is something that tends to appear between the know-it-all phase and the letdown phase. This usually the time you can’t convey your ideas — not because you are too advanced, but because you aren’t knowledgeable enough yet.

Admitting that we don’t fully know our subject matter can be tough. However, it’s something that affects us all, and once we make peace with it, we can find solutions. Learning more about your niche frees you from sitting in front of a blank piece of paper for hours trying to figure out how to explain an idea that you don’t fully grasp, and allows you to connect with a larger, more diverse audience.

So, what does your grandma have to say about your writing?

Filed Under: Craft
James Chartrand

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8 comments

  • Gyanendra Mocktan says:

    Thank you very much for your article. I think knowledge has hurt me so much and sometimes i feel I have squandered precious three decades of my life.
    7 or 10 years I have struggling It with blogs and wordpress for trying to share my thoughts. But I get stuck with the IT terms. I keep on learning them.
    thank you again

    • Karol says:

      With WordPress, it’s usually best just to use the default setup and not worry about anything related to code. You really don’t have to do anything with it to make it work (other than getting a theme).

  • Important points, here. Thanks! I always used the Colin Powell “70-30” rule. If I know more than 70 percent, I probably know too much and am in the weeds. If I know less than 30 percent, I don’t know enough to make a good decision or communicate a point. Always served me pretty well – mostly on the “over 70” side.

    Great note on Jargon. The Communications Network has a fabulous Jargon Finder for those of you who need a quick reference of key terms to avoid (or at least be aware of): http://www.comnetwork.org/category/jargon/

  • Anne Thorpe says:

    I wrote a piece about something traumatic that happened in my childhood but if I post it on FB or Twitter, people will know it’s me. That scares me because what I wrote about is very personal, yet I needed to write about it. I have a medical background and it is difficult to keep that out of what I wrote and not sound arrogant. How do I do that? I’d like some anonymous feedback but don’t know how to get that. Help!

    • Karol says:

      In my opinion, the question you should be asking is “Who is the reader?” This will help you decide what amount of jargon to use and how to structure everything.

      For instance, if it’s going to be read by your colleagues sharing the same medical background then they will surely not mind the technical terms. They will probably even appreciate it. But if you’re writing it for the regular folk then I’d probably eliminate all but the essential medical explanation and focus on what’s truly important.