The curse of knowledge… and why it can kill your book stone dead

Standing woman with book over her face

When I was at university, I threw a book out of a 12th-floor window.

No doubt this sounds like heresy, coming from a literature grad and professional editor?

Reader, I hold my hands up. I am guilty of this heinous crime against literature.

Well, not exactly literature… Allow me to explain.

You see, the tome in question was a philosophy book on free will and determinism. In the first year at my university, students had to take three different courses other than literature, then specialise in their main subject in the second and third years.

(I went on to do a minor in Russian literature. Don’t ask me about Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. Seriously, we’ll be here all day.)

The situation is this: I was struggling with writing an essay on the topic, and really needed to study this book to try to wrap my head around it.

The thing is, the concepts of free will and determinism aren’t actually that complex in and of themselves. They can be boiled down to a simple sentence or two.

The problem was that the writing and language conveying them in the book were so impenetrable that I simply couldn’t understand any of it.

It was getting late, and I was desperate to finally get something down to hand to my tutor. In a pique of helplessness and frustration, I opened the window of my high-rise dorm room, cold air blasting my face, and tossed the book out into the night.

And you know what? I didn’t go back down to retrieve it, either.

One of my flatmates studying philosophy for their degree had seen what I’d done from the corridor, howled with laughter, went down to get it, then came back and kindly and patiently sat down over intravenous tea to explain what was in this book, so I could actually unpack what on earth it was trying to say.

There is a certain obnoxious intellectual elitism that wraps up its concepts in language deliberately constructed to shut people out.

If you understand it, you’re in with the ‘in-crowd’. And if you don’t? Writing in such a way that readers find impossible to negotiate is a barrier which basically says:

‘If you aren’t smart enough to understand this, you obviously aren’t worthy of the beneficient wisdom we have to share with you.’

It goes without saying that when you’re writing a book, this isn’t a great strategy. Notwithstanding real terms of art or technical terms essential to your subject, using unnecessarily circumlocutive language can alienate your audience.

It makes them feel confused and unworthy, or just plain irritated and – this is the most important thing – results in their simply not buying your book.

Or if they have already parted with their hard-earned and abandoned it for something easier to digest, delivering an uncompromisingly negative review.

The curse of knowledge afflicts many manuscripts written by experts at some point, but in a different way.

Because the author knows what they’re referring to, they perhaps don’t realise that their readers may not. So they either move on too quickly without clarifying what that thing is or means, or fail to explain why it’s necessary or important.

Assumptions like this can be deadly for a book. Losing your reader kills their interest. And the last thing any author wants their readers to do is put their book down, never to pick it up again.

Or in my case, defenestrate it to what, I considered in fury at the time, was a far worthier place!

One helpful way to avoid the curse of knowledge is to think about how you would sit down and talk with someone who isn’t familiar with your sector.

  • What is their comprehension level – do they know your work or topic to the same degree as you?
  • What do you need to show or tell them to ensure they understand – without ‘teaching’ language that talks down to them, or puts you above them?
  • What do you need to explain to keep the points and concepts clear for them?

Editors sometimes have to challenge authors on this, especially in how-to books. The author’s intention is always laudable: to help by sharing their wealth of expertise, which is positive and good.

But sometimes it is key just to take a step back to check whether the text is meeting the reader’s needs, as well as the goals for the project.

It’s understandable. Ultimately, an author can only write from their own perspective, and it can be challenging to shift their lens to the reader’s. A lot of the ‘curse’ manifests itself unconsciously!

This is where getting feedback from your target audience can be invaluable, through beta reading.

External feedback from the people whom the book is intended to help can rebalance the text, ensuring that they’ll not only find it useful, but enjoyable too.

As for my year of attempting to decipher the great thinkers of the ages, the upshot of my exam was that the philosophy department invited me to switch my degree and join them.

It was a nice offer, but I kindly declined. I’m afraid the thought of another two years of having to plough through this stuff would drive me round the bend.

No, I’d rather stick with Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, thanks!

It wasn’t so bad in the end. Thirty years later, that choice to stay with the subject I love has paid off through a long and happy career in publishing.

Maybe that philosophy book did me a huge favour after all.

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