“Why is so much writing so hard to understand? Why must a typical reader struggle to follow an academic article, the fine print on a tax return, or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?”
These are questions Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker asks in his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. They’re questions I’ve often encountered –and attempted to tackle– throughout my career as a business writer and editor. Whenever I see writing that is loaded with jargon, clichés, technical terms, and abbreviations, two questions come immediately to mind. First, what is the writer trying to say, exactly? And second, how can the writer convey her ideas more clearly, without having to lean on language that confuses the reader?
For Pinker, the root cause of so much bad writing is what he calls “the Curse of Knowledge”, which he defines as “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”