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Aaron Dalton

Empirical Editors: Curse of Knowledge

Empirical Editors Bias

This article is part of a series that draws lessons from some of the research collected in Aaron Dalton’s “Empirical Research for Editors” list.

Empirical Editors Bias
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Do you have the curse of knowledge?

The “curse of knowledge” is a type of cognitive bias where someone unknowingly assumes, while communicating, that their audience has the same background knowledge they do.

Of all the cognitive biases, this is the one editors are most intimately familiar with (e.g., technical editors working on user documentation, academic editors working on journal articles, fiction editors flagging regional colloquialisms). One of our primary roles is to help writers stay grounded and be realistic in their expectations of their readers. How can writers mitigate this bias?

  • Be deliberate: In my plain language courses, I teach a “think, then write, then edit” approach to drafting. In the think phase, writers must produce an audience statement. By deliberately thinking about their audience before they start writing, they increase the odds of their writing hitting the mark.
  • Gather data: To assess the knowledge level of their audience, writers should think about people they actually know. If they’re writing to other subject-matter experts, they can consider a colleague. If they’re writing to the general public, they can imagine explaining their material to a friend or family member.

    Even better, though, is hard data. An organization should have good data on their stakeholders. Publishers should have information on the consumers of different genres. The more writers know about their intended audience, the better chance they have of successfully communicating with them. In some cases, they can test drafts of their document with actual users before publishing.
  • Get professional help: This is where we editors come in. We help writers find areas affected not only by the curse of knowledge but also by other barriers to understanding. We help maximize reading fluency.

Have you encountered the curse of knowledge? Share your stories below!

Further reading


Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Notes on Notes

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