Posted by: johnocunningham | October 15, 2014

Why Bad Writing Happens To Smart People

This little blog post was inspired by an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal recently, entitled: “When Being Too Smart Ruins Writing.”

The column written by Harvard Professor Steven Pinker seemed to be tailor-made for lawyer-writers.

In it, Pinker explains that “the curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose.” He elaborates on that by noting that reputable authorities in their fields can simply skip over logical steps and clarifications in their writing because their professional acumen has them flying well above the ground on which most of us live.

I too have often noticed this phenomenon among brilliant lawyers when I am asked to review and edit their drafts of articles intended for publication in print or on the Web. At times, it appears that they are performing incantations or complex verbal calculus. But when I can divine the intended meaning and refine it with a little bit of supplemental research and intuition born of experience, I find that there is frequently a cogent and compelling message inside of their half-baked fortune cookie.

I also agree with Pinker that a good way to “exorcise the curse of knowledge” in your writing is to put the finished product down for a while (at least a full 24 hours) and then come back to it and read it with a mind that is now focused on another priority. If you can’t understand what you wrote the first time, that is the perfect precondition for making helpful and clarifying edits to your own work.

It is also very helpful to have critical colleagues review your work and tell you where they got lost or just plain disinterested.  As Pinker observes, this is what engineers term “closing the loop” or “beta-testing” the product. Peter Elbow, author of a number of works on writing, suggests the same approach with the inclusion of other writers in your “focus group” so that you get a writer-editor’s perspective.

As William Zinsser says in his book, “On Writing Well,” it is in “rewriting that the game is won or lost.” Thus, “rewriting is the essence of writing” and a fresh and critical eye – or eyes – can greatly improve the final product.


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