The whole purpose of writing things is for other people to understand your ideas. Why then is so much writing bad?
Steven Pinker suggests in The Source of Bad Writing that the issue is
The ‘curse of knowledge’ leads writers to assume their readers know everything they know
The traditional way to deal with this is to keep your audience in mind. Try really hard to think about what they don’t know that you do. Especially the really basic stuff that should be soooo obvious to everyone.
Somewhere in that obvious stuff are several of the key ideas you need to explain before readers will get your point.
That doesn’t work too well according to the author because we humans are notoriously bad at knowing what other people don’t know.
Two steps he recommends:
Show your writing to someone similar to your target audience. Is it understandable? What did you leave out?
The second step is to show the text to yourself after you’ve had some time to distance yourself from the writing. You may be amazed at the revisions you need to make.
Great advice for everyone, especially
- accountants writing recommendation letters or drafting footnotes,
- ministry leaders writing policy manuals, instructions, internal communications, or persuasive marketing materials, and
- bloggers trying to persuade or enlighten their audience.
I find that second suggestion, a cold read of your own material, helpful. Sometimes I’ll look at text a while after writing it and wonder how to salvage the mess I made.
We need to intentionally try to find what we forgot to explain.
(Cross-posted from my other blog, Nonprofit Update.)