The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge.jpgI recently had a friend contact me because an editor had given them feedback that mentioned, ‘the curse of knowledge’.  My friend mentioned it for two reasons: they weren’t entirely tracking on what it meant, and they knew I blog about writing and thought I could mention it in a post.

There’s a touch of irony in having an editor tell you to avoid the curse of knowledge.  It becomes even more ironic when they don’t explain exactly what it means.  I’ve seen a few explanations of the term, but to put it plainly, it’s when a writer makes assumptions about what their readers know and end up writing above their heads.

Here’s a non-fiction example.  When I was a journalist in the Navy, we were instructed to break down our writing to the grade school level.  This tailored our writing to a wider audience and made it more accessible to the average reader.

nps

The Naval Postgraduate School wasn’t a terrible place to be stationed. 

Then, later in my Navy career, I got stationed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The students at the school were senior officers from all branches of the military and from allied countries.  The focus was mostly on advanced science and technology projects.  I was told to step up the complexity of my writing because now the average audience was perceived to be more intelligent.

I remember being assigned a story about a professor and some students who were developing free electron laser technology to be used on ships.  The idea was to use directed energy to blast incoming rockets and projectiles out of the sky before they would reach a ship. The professor’s name was Bill Coulson, and I was super excited to talk about something that hearkened images of the planet Alderaan being destroyed.

When I sat down with Bill, I asked him to describe the scope of the project.  The explanation was interesting, but very confusing.  There were lots of technical terms and science jargon.  After he finished, I asked in the nicest way possible if he could explain some aspects of it again, but dumb it down for me. He obliged.

FEL_principle.png

At this point in time I didn’t know a lick about ‘the curse of knowledge,’ but in retrospect, this example really illustrates it well.  Bill, due to his technical experience and level of knowledge, glossed over some facts that would be essential to my story.  By glossing over, I do mean, used scientific jargon very few people truly understand.  I needed a way to write those bits of information in a way for the average reader to comprehend.  For me to do that, I needed to understand it myself.

complex description.jpgThis is an important concept to think of when you are writing.  I find that many times people who use lots of technical terms and jargon do so for two reasons: sometimes they don’t really understand what they are talking about themselves, and sometimes they are afraid to be seen as simpletons by peers.

Now, about that first conclusion.  When I ask someone to break something complex down and they can’t, I often wonder if they actually know what it is they are talking about.  In the example I offered, Bill had no trouble simplifying some very advanced engineering and physics concepts to their bare bones.  He truly understood the content; I just needed to filter and understand it myself.

In regards to being afraid to look like a simpleton, that’s something we just need to be able to get over unless we want to only appeal to the most pretentious readers (and those blow-hards are probably going to criticize your work no matter what).  When I interviewed Bill, I could have just nodded my head and dumped all of the content he gave me into the story in its raw state.  But that would have been a disservice to him because a story of this nature helps spread the word.  If no one understands the science, then it’s harder for him to get grants to pay for all of his cool toys.

Navy_laser_shoots_drone..jpgI‘m not saying my story helped change the world, but these lasers are on ships now…

[Side Note:  If you are still reading and are thinking, QE tell me how to build my own laser weaponhere is a cool pdf Bill put together that talks about the evolution of the tech. Good luck…

The curse of knowledge also manifests in a lack of detail.  Some writers make the assumption, because they are so close to the story, that everyone may know what it is they are describing.  Because of this, they strip the setting of detail and only offer a skeleton.  Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, states that, “Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images…” (p. 72).

We want people to remember our story.  It’s often why it’s recommended to anchor the reader in setting early in chapters.  When people recall a story, they often recall it in chunks (our brain chunks information to help us remember it).  For them to remember a specific chunk/chapter, it’s vital for the storyteller to anchor them in each chapter and paint a brief picture.perception-quote

Whether you are bamboozling people with complex language, or stripping things down, the best way to cure the curse is to step outside of your own perception.  Put another way, it’s a fools errand to solely apply your own judgement as to what other people understand.  If you want to know what people think, you need to ask them.  This is why it’s of vital importance to pay special attention to your beta and alpha readers (your editor might be able to offer some insight too).

question markThat’s the breakdown of the concept.  I may do one future post on this that discusses some of the misconceptions and beliefs behind the curse.  Let me know if this is something any of you are interested in.  Have any of you fallen victim to the curse?  Have you read the work of someone afflicted with it?  I’d love to hear about.  I’m also very open to more solutions.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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41 responses

  1. so Its like Penny on Big Bang Theory. With a whole room full of scientist and people with doctrines, They are constantly talking over her head and have to dummy it down for her. I get this all the time. From Penny side. lol. Enjoyed reading this, as usual.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I run my technical content with others that may not know what an otolith is for example, and see if they get the gist of what I’m saying or I they’re like, “uh I had no idea so I skipped it…”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Do you ever run out of knowledge bombs Corey?

    Seriously dude, I am beginning to wonder how you keep doing this! I always find your posts so helpful and insightful and it excites me even more (about the editing process) which is saying something because as a writer, I’m going to be honest…I don’t always feel like editing (even when I should). Xp

    Liked by 3 people

    • I could say the same thing to you (in regards to constant and prolific writing). I am glad you found something useful. It’s nice when answering one question seems to answer lots of them.

      This idea had slipped my mind and I was reading while feeding Thor and the chapter title was, The Curse of Knowledge. Then I remembered that I still hadn’t pushed out a post about it yet. So really, the credit goes to self-study.

      One of my goals with the blog was to generate content I could point people to that I’m working with. Sometimes it’s much easier to point someone to something that is pre-written instead of writing a paragraph long comment in markup mode. So in a number of ways, this blog helps me out a lot too.

      Thanks for stopping by and giving me a little ego boost, it’s always appreciated. Hope you aren’t buried in boxes while you prepare for the move.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s an amazing thing isn’t it?

        Writing I mean.

        It doesn’t matter if it’s tips & tricks of the trade or sharing your knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you tell stories or you share your love for something via a review. Writing is a beautiful thing. I am thankful everyday that I was blessed with the love and ability for writing. I honestly don’t think myself a “prolific writer”.

        I very much appreciate the kind words. I do aim though to captivate, to bring emotion, to completely blow the world away with the power of storytelling! I want people to feel the power of story and I hope to really bring that across in the near future.

        It fuels me, it burns like a fire unable to be put out. I may not aim to write for profit so to speak, but that doesn’t mean my ambition isn’t extremely driven! I want the world to get quality storytelling, and I want them to have it for free…

        It will be in poetry for the most part here on the main blog, but that 2nd blog…well, it seems secondary for the moment because I had to stop it for the time being but…

        I hope to truly use that to it’s fullest extent soon. I know I seem to be rambling but my point is, regardless of your aim, storytelling is a gift, writing is a gift. Those with a passion for it…they inspire me. It’s a huge part of the reason I frequent this blog. The advice is amazing yes, but I see your passion for writing…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. P.S.- I know that was way off topic but the moment I read The Curse Of Knowledge I found myself all excited because I remember you mentioning it before.

    Then I got completely off track with the comment but I basically meant this was another example of something you said suddenly coming back to me when it is brought up proper in another of your well taught and thought out articles.

    Keep building, you do an excellent job! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I quite often parcel out bits and pieces of my writing for friends to have a look at, usually the bits that I find most interesting. And yet it still always surprises me when they write back with little to no enthusiasm! That’s when I realise that I know all the backstory I didn’t write down. So me, I suffer from stripping down.
    Another great post Corey. Keep them coming!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Given your education and background, I imagine you are really good at breaking down some of those more complex scientific theories and idea and making them more accessible to laymen like me.

      What you are describing is very common. Most of the time when I start asking writers questions during critique, they know all the answers. After a ten minute explanation I’m usually like, “I’d recommend peppering some of that into the story because it’s great info.”

      I’m the same exact way. There have been plenty of times when some of my writers group comrades ask me questions about my own WIPs, and as soon as the question exits their mouth, I realize my error.

      Glad you enjoyed the post and took the time to read, Andrew. I’ll likely swing by your space later tonight 🙂 I need my daily short story fix.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is the very definition of technobabble in cheesy sci-fi novels. But in all seriousness, much of this has to do with a tinge of arrogance in my opinion. Sometimes, writers think they need to prove that they know about a subject, but they take their attempts to “prove” their veracity too far.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think technobabble can work, the writer just needs to build the concept up over time. Much like we need to be able to count before we can add or subtract, the writer needs to give us the basics of the technology before they try to scramble our brains with it.

      Also, in my opinion, the tech should have some purpose other than simply being a, “ohhh…shiny,” kind of thing in the story.

      In the way of arrogance, I try not to make assumptions or diagnose early, but usually you get a pretty good idea of the cause as soon as you say or leave feedback for the writer. The response, for me, is the best cue as to whether or not I have future collaborating with them.

      Life/time is too short to spend it collaborating with people who don’t really want to be helped. More so, it’s not worth the frustration of trying to point something out to someone who refuses to see from any perspective other than their own.

      Give me a struggling writer who wants to improve daily, and I will burn away the midnight oil with them. This, of course, is my two cents.

      I appreciate you leaving your thoughts and for taking the time to read.

      On a sidenote, I was hoping to feature you tomorrow for my Feature Friday post. Though I haven’t had as much time as I would like to read and comment, I did swing by today and saw you have a number of really interesting ‘writing tip’ posts. Let me know if you are okay with that, I’m really digging the fight scene post you just generated (points awarded for the Final Fantasy addition). I’ll likely comment on it later tonight.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’d be honored to be included in your features, and know that your comments are always welcomed on my site! You’re likely busier than I ever will be, so don’t feel too bad about not being able to comment that much. I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes, I just want to finish a writing session and sleep for another 8 hours or so!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. “Put another way, it’s a fools errand to solely apply your own judgement as to what other people understand. If you want to know what people think, you need to ask them. This is why it’s of vital importance to pay special attention to your beta and alpha readers (your editor might be able to offer some insight too).”

    Time and time again, I’ve run into the same problem: my beta readers (both of them) “get it,” but then other readers don’t. Do I need more “average” beta readers? If so, where do I find those? (I WILL NOT nerf my fiction for the convenience of people who don’t even read SF, and that seems to be what a lot of people online want: smaller vocabulary, shorter sentences, and sexy vampires. Nope, ain’t gonna happen.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • That really is a tough spot to be in, Thomas. Do you feel your beta readers have their fingers on the pulse of what is trending in your genre? If so, I would put my faith in them. Especially if they are veracious readers.

      The best source of online beta readers I have consistently heard good things about is GoodReads. I can’t vouch for it 100 percent, as I haven’t taken that plunge myself. Like you, I have a couple alpha readers, and a couple beta readers right now. I’ll likely have a better idea once I get to that stage and start floundering around in the beta reading waters.

      I wish I could be more help. If I stumble across anything of merit, I’ll shoot you an email. Thanks for taking the time to stop in today.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t think of it until I just re-read your comment, but I can also point you toward an author who I’m almost positive uses GoodReads for beta readers if you are unfamiliar with the layout and process on their website.

      You can reply via email or on here if you want to go that route.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Try joining some of the online science fiction (or whatever your genre is) groups, then you can find beta readers from among your target audience!! Keep the ones you already have though since they already know you and can give you insights strangers might miss.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. For me, the big concern with the curse of knowledge is magic systems. When you know EXACTLY how a thing works, and you write with that knowledge. Sometimes the reader is completely lost because it makes such sense to you, but readers don’t have the benefit of your scope, research, or notes. There’s only so much suspension of disbelief when you can’t understand what’s going on. Thanks of the post, and I hope your next blog about it dives in on that aspect.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Your article reminded of the time I did not understand one line in a mathematics proof. When I asked the professor for clarity, she drew a chalk box around the line. When I said it still was unclear, she drew an even thicker box around the first one. Yeah, that helped.

    Like

  10. I’d always heard this used to refer to authors and plots. You write things in such a way because you know the end result, which takes away some of the drama and tension of the story. Think of the movie JOHN ADAMS… if you write the characters with the POV that winning the Revolution was a foregone conclusion you miss the tension of the moment. Writing is like that, we own the crystal ball and we have to jealously hide that knowledge from lowly plebeians who aren’t ready to process the knowledge.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I only slightly disagree with the notion that if someone can’t explain something in a simple way then they don’t know what they’re talking about. I think most people are just very bad at this sort of thing, I had a teacher like this once, she obviously knew the subject, but she couldn’t simplify things for her life hehe. : )
    I probably leave too many details out in my writing. I do get too close to the story, it’s hard to put myself in the readers shoes.

    Meno<3

    Liked by 1 person

    • I checked to be sure, but I did preface that statement with “sometimes.” 😉 I do my best not to paint people into boxes with broad brush strokes.

      I do agree with you, though. I had a statistics instructor who would explain things until he was purple in the face and all of us were still confused as could be. I ended up having to retake the course (along with a number of other people) and the next professor was able to “dumb” it down for us and I actually ended up enjoying it.

      I also tend to leave out details (especially setting details) and have to address it when I do rewrites. There are plenty of other mistakes I make too, but that one is a biggie.

      Thanks for stopping in!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I would love to see more posts on this topic, maybe with writing examples of showing too much confusing text and a simplified version. Could be one example for non fiction and two for fiction – one fantasy writing and one contemporary or something.

    Liked by 1 person

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