Is your knowledge cursing your writing?

Author(s): Cynthia Saver, MS, RN, Editorial Director

We nurses tend to take great pride in our knowledge. After all, we exert great effort to stay on top of the latest medical and nursing developments, starting as a student and continuing as a practicing nurse.

But our knowledge can stand in the way of our ability to write effectively, according to Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychologist and author of the book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. He says the “curse of knowledge” can cause writers to pack their articles with jargon and convoluted sentences that confuse and frustrate readers. Pinker defines the curse of knowledge as the “difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”

The curse makes it difficult for us to evaluate other people’s knowledge. For example, because you know the meaning of “population-specific skills,” you assume others know that it refers to skills needed to meet the needs of specific populations of patients.

Unfortunately, some authors view their writing as an opportunity to show how knowledgeable they are as opposed to a tool designed to inform readers. They may also mistakenly believe that academic or scholarly writing requires complicated sentences and plenty of technical terms. In reality, journals, whether they’re academic or practice focused, are most interested in writing that their readers can understand and find helpful. Keep in mind that the first sentence of the classic 1953 article by Watson and Crick, credited as the discoverers of the basic structure of DNA*, is “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.).” It doesn’t get much clear than that.

How can we overcome the curse of knowledge?

  1. Be aware that it’s an issue. (In this case, knowledge isn’t a curse, but rather part of the cure for the curse.)
  2. Don’t overuse jargon, technical terms, or abbreviations. Overuse of abbreviations is a common problem. Remember that even if you define them the first time they’re used, too many abbreviations can be difficult for the reader to remember. (Of course, widely used abbreviations, such as DNA, can stand alone.)
  3. If you’re using a term you’re not sure the reader will know, add a brief explanation. For example: anomic aphasia, where people have difficulty finding the words for what they want to talk about.
  4. Ask a person who represents your target reader to read the manuscript. This is especially important if your reader won’t be an expert in the field. For example, you, an expert in postpartum depression, may be writing an article on how nurses in family practice settings can recognize its signs and symptoms. Your target reader will have far less expertise than you. A representative target reader can identify areas that seem crystal clear to you, but may be muddled to someone who lacks your knowledge.
  5. Use examples. Examples illustrate and illuminate. Here’s an example from the article “Avoiding antipsychotic medication use in nursing home residents with dementia”: “Work with providers and the care team to identify and prioritize residents for gradual antipsychotic dose reduction. For example, residents may be good candidates for successful reduction if they use antipsychotics as needed, recently started the antipsychotic for transient agitation or sleep, were prescribed the medication for delirium while in the hospital, or have late-stage dementia and sleep most of the time.”

Pinker makes this bold statement: “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.” Don’t let this curse hold you back from writing articles that resonate with your readers.

For more information, see Anatomy of Writing for Publication for Nurses, 3rd ed.

*There’s more to the DNA discovery story that we’ve all learned. If you want to learn more (beware: it’s involved), see https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/discovery-of-dna-structure-and-function-watson-397/.

 

 

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