Step 1: Step Back
Step 2: Stop Playing God
Step 3: Shake Off Your Curse of Knowledge
The third step in learning how to edit your own work is to remember how much you know and to realize that your reader doesn’t know the same things. This sounds like a simple task – I just have to remember that my reader doesn’t know everything I learned in my ten years on the tennis circuit, or I have to remember that my reader doesn’t know that in the world I created, dragons can’t kill unicorns— but it’s actually a very complex and morally profound task, not to mention technically impossible.
The third step in learning how to edit your own work is to remember how much you know and to realize that your reader doesn’t know the same things.
In many fundamental ways, we CAN’T shake off the burden of knowledge simply by our intention. We are all a product of our era, our culture, our family, our religion, our system of government, our geography, and the gazillion experiences we have had that are specific to us. We can’t shake these things off, nor, when it comes to writing, would we want to, because they are precisely what give our story power. I just have to remember that my reader doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up poor and black in Alabama in the ‘50s. I just have to remember that my reader doesn’t know what it’s like to be the persecuted genius who saved England from the ravages of war (that was from The Imitation Game…great movie!)
Psychologists refer to the phenomenon of not being able to “un-know” things as the “curse of knowledge.” What exactly does it mean? Chip Heath, who is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Business School, and his brother, Dan Heath, a new media business consultant, wrote a book called Made to Stick, which was about how businesses can make their messages more “sticky.” (It’s a fabulous book about writing great stories, too. I highly recommend it.) They talk a lot about the curse of knowledge in those pages, and in this Harvard Business Reviewpiece, which gives a shortened explanation of it:
“In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.
Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?
When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.
The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”
Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”
This is a giant problem for writers, of course, because we are in the business of trying to communicate. Our very JOB is to make clear what is most likely not clear, for the very reason that we thought it up or we made it up or we lived it and are trying to recreate it for the reader. One of the most frequent critiques I make on a piece of writing is, “It’s not on the page.” What I mean by this is that the story or argument may well be crystal clear in the writer’s head, but it has lost something – usually a lot – in translation.
There are the obvious bits of knowledge that the writers leaves out when something is not on the page – things such as a technicality about, say, the foot fault in tennis (going back to the person who spent ten years on the tennis circuit), and those are relatively easy to spot and correct. You think, “Oh right, not everyone has played five million sets of tennis. Not everyone would know this.” But there are also a million nuanced things the writer knows, as well – particularly in the realm of emotion.
Writers are so paranoid about NOT TELLING THE READER ANYTHING (see what I wrote about show don’t tell last week) that they end up bending over backwards to tell them…nothing. So they might write a line like this:
MaryJane swallowed and looked away.
Now the writer surely knows what the swallowing and looking away meant, but there’s no way the READER can know.
Is it that MaryJane was so thrilled about what happened that she could barely contain her glee and had to swallow to keep from screaming and had to look away so that no one would see her smile?
Or is it that that MaryJane was sure she was about to be caught red-handed in her horrible crime and so out of shame and regret for what she had done, she swallowed and looked away?
Or is it that MaryJane was about to give the most important speech of her life, and before she stepped up to do it, she swallowed to moisten her mouth and looked away because she knew if she caught someone’s eye, she would lose it?
Context would certainly help the reader some, but not as much as you probably think. You have to tell the reader what you know.
Show them how things unfold (arguments in non fiction, scenes in fiction and memoir), show them what things mean (to you, to them, to the characters), but TELL them what you know about what’s going on.
Failure to do this will cost you readers—and fast. The next time you stop reading something—a book, a magazine article, a blog post—try to think about why. There are all kinds of reasons to stop reading things, but odds are very good that among those reasons were several places where the writer didn’t tell you some critical piece of information. We lose trust in writers who don’t let us in. We actually get sort of pissed at them.
We lose trust in writers who don’t let us in. We actually get sort of pissed at them.
As Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, writes in The Wall Street Journal, “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.”
Doesn’t bother to explain…. It’s kind of rude, when you think about it….
Here is the opening paragraph of a novel by a client who allowed me to share her work-in-progress with you (and who is super kind – couldn’t be actually rude if she tried.) She is a person who has spent many, many years in the very inner circle of Washington. Her curse of knowledge about the way the Senate works is B-I-G. But she freely admits that she doesn’t know how to write good fiction. She is eager – and committed—to learn, and so has welcomed the tearing-apart of her prose.
Read these lines and see if you can notice where you, as a reader, feel either left out, unsettled, or flat-out confused.
I stood on the Senate floor in the red silk dress that looked great on camera and separated me from my dark-suited colleagues. Matching shoes with 3” heels made me taller than most other Senators. My black hair was fashionably coifed without being flirtatious. The dress was hot and the shoes hurt like hell, but comfort didn’t count. What mattered was that voters admired what they saw. The game had bizarre rules, but the point of playing it was to win. I wanted to become captain of the winning team and was aware that women must navigate the razor’s edge between shrill and weak, between bitch and kitten.
Now here's the same piece with my comments on this paragraph are in italics and brackets
I stood on the Senate floor in the red TK silk dress that looked great on camera and separated me from my dark-suited colleagues. Matching shoes with 3” heels made me taller than most other Senators. [Only use physical details when they tell us something important that we need to know right now. I don’t think it’s important that we know NOW that she’s tall…so this line ends up feeling a bit like an information dump.] My black hair was fashionably coifed without being flirtatious. [Ditto above comment…and also this actually tells us nothing. Was it in a bun? A ponytail? A bob? And what would be the difference between flirtatious and not flirtatious? And by fashionably coifed, do you mean that she spent $300 a week at month at a high-end hairdresser? Or $500 a week having someone come to her office? Or an hour each morning doing her own hair in front of the mirror? ] The dress was hot [Could be perceived as CUTE hot not temperature hot. Which did you mean?] and the shoes hurt like hell, but comfort didn’t count. What mattered was that voters admired what they saw. [Admired their LOOKS? Really? Is that the right word? Is that what is actually considered most important in a Senator?] The game had bizarre rules, but the point of playing it was to win. I wanted to become captain of the winning team [So she wants to be President? Okay, but it’s a little – flat. Obvious. Can we get more of a sense in here of WHY she wants it? Was she born to lead? Did she feel she deserved it?] and was aware that women must navigate the razor’s edge between shrill and weak, between bitch and kitten. [But how is she doing that? We’re not seeing that at all – either shrill or weak, either bitch or kitten. Also, is she referring to her clothing here? This is a position of huge power – the end of the opening paragraph, a place to really cement your point. Is this the point of your story? That women have to navigate the razor’s edge?]
You can see that in just ten lines, the writer failed to tell us all kinds really critical things, and in telling us the few things she DID tell us, unintentionally led us in a direction she probably didn’t want us to go.
So how can you avoid this? What can you do when you sit down to edit your work so that you might shake off the curse of knowledge to the best of your ability?
First, be aware of your particular curses. What do you know? What is in your bones? What are your beliefs? Be aware of them, and aware that your reader doesn’t necessarily share any of this.
Next, read through the work looking for places where you have left things out. Be like a dog on a hunt, sniffing out omissions and places where you failed to give the reader the information they need. Be conscious about this. Write these omissions in the margin.
Err on the side of going too far. More writers make the mistake of being stingy than they do the mistake of being generous. I
Remember that what readers want to know is usually not physical detail (unless the physical detail is critical to the story.) We don’t, for example, want to know the designer of the red dress in that Senate story, and whether it had sleeves, and whether there was a jacket, and whether it hit below or above the knee. That would drag the opening down. But we DO want to know – why a red dress that people would admire? How does that help a person stand out, gain power? What does this dress say about this woman in this moment?
Steven Pinker sums up this exercise in that WSJ article I cited above:
“The other way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, "What did I mean by that?" or "How does this follow?" or, all too often, "Who wrote this crap?" The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. Advice on writing is not so much advice on how to write as on how to revise.
Much advice on writing has the tone of moral counsel, as if being a good writer will make you a better person. Unfortunately for cosmic justice, many gifted writers are scoundrels, and many inept ones are the salt of the earth. But the imperative to overcome the curse of knowledge may be the bit of writerly advice that comes closest to being sound moral advice: Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mind-set and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person in all spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your readers.”
But the late great Charles Schultz sums it up best of all in that comic at the top of the post.
In a few square inches, this comic captures the central challenge of a writer's job. It illustrates the enormous gap between the storyteller and the receiver of the story. It is in that gap that you work your magic.
You, the writer, are Sally. You hold something in your hand that is bursting with meaning and alive with significance, and you know exactly why.
Your reader is Charlie Brown. They have no idea why they should pay attention to what you are showing them. They have no idea why they should care. They are standing there saying, "Look at what?" at every single moment, on every single page.
Make sure you have an answer, and make it be as powerful, visceral, specific, clear and poignant as Sally's answer.
Next week: Part 4 in the how to edit your own work series, we'll discuss how to hold the reader's experience in your head while you edit your work. And MAYBE I will be able to present the revised opening paragraph of the work I just shared.