Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Curse of Knowledge: A Challenge for Experts and Fiction Writers

The “curse of knowledge” refers to the difficulty experts have in teaching less experienced or knowledgeable individuals in their field. At the expert level, a lot of background knowledge and tacit knowledge is taken for granted and becomes so unobtrusive to the expert that he/she doesn’t think of it as something that needs to be explained or discussed. As a result, the expert tends to speak at too high a level and can’t communicate well with non-experts.  This goes beyond the communication issues related to excessive use of professional jargon and it applies within fields, not just across fields. That is why mid-level professionals make better teachers and mentors than top level experts. Mid-level professionals haven’t lost touch with all that background knowledge necessary to climb the knowledge ladder. This is a relevant lesson for anyone trying to convey an important message to others. Are you paying attention to what the target audience for your message already knows? If not, you could be speaking over their heads.

Fiction writers face a similar “curse of knowledge.” They know a lot more about their characters than the reader will ever know, and the key task of the writer is to put just the right amount of information on paper to convey the essence of the character without sharing the full character development sheet (something that could include details such as their favorite food and the titles of the last three books they've read). Certain actions by key characters won’t make sense unless some relevant information has been provided beforehand (I've caught myself at times wanting to tell the readers to just "read it again" to catch what they missed on the first read). The sequence in which information is provided is therefore critical, yet the writer can’t dump all that background in the first few pages either.

The main difference is that experts can keep talking to fellow experts, be brilliant, and go on to win Nobel Prizes.  As long as they're not asked to teach college freshmen, they'll be fine. A fiction writer who is brilliant in his/her head but can't transfer that magic on paper is not going to be very successful.

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