Jake Trent

Writing with the Curse of Knowledge

The curse of knowledge may create obstacles to us writing something useful for our reader. We may assume that others know exactly what we know and that they still need to learn certain things. This might be mismatched with their real needs.

Knowing where to start

In technical writing, we try to guide someone from the beginning to the end, with proficiency in some task as the end goal.

Perhaps we don’t start precisely at zero, assuming our reader knows nothing. But we start at some lower-level starting point. But where do we start? People start from different points of knowledge. And it’s hard to hedge all our bets or give enough caveats.

Prefer restating a few things at the risk of being obvious. People like a review. It’s good to create the context and foundation for the more essential points we’re about to make.

Knowing where to end

Ending can be difficult, but should be less so. After all, when we set out to write, the thing we’re trying to accomplish should be well-understood by us. It’s the reason we’re writing.

Precisely point out what we will be able to do by the end if we follow the steps to conclusion. Point out what we will not be able to do because of limitations. We might also point to continuing or alternate paths that we don’t pursue in the present writing. We could point to assistive resources for continued learning.

Knowing the level of detail

Like knowing where to start, it can be difficult to know how much hand holding through each step someone needs. It might be hard to know how specific to get on each step and how much to skip between each step.

Make a judgement call between verbosity and terseness, focused on readability toward the end goal. Only favor adding detail when essential complexity seems to require it. Once we decide on a resolution, stick with it from beginning to end.

Not leaving anything out

When there are lots of steps or related concepts, it can be easy to leave something out. Our reader will jump into the text and think, “Wow, where did that come from?” or “What does that mean? I’ve never heard of that before.” Mentioning things out of order will have the same effect.

Re-read and look for logical jumps where we may need to fill in steps or facts that are foundational to next steps.

And so in this curse of knowledge article, did I start in the wrong place? Did I stop before I got to the point of usefulness? Did I leave stuff out? Definitely.