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Intelligence and Poor Writing
Although it might seem counterintuitive, sometimes intelligence gets in the way of good writing. Think about the last time you read the instructions for something…was it easy to follow? Did they use words you didn’t understand or assume you knew things that you didn’t? How about reading a government form, or an academic article? Why can’t these articles, essays, instructions, etc., be more reader-friendly?
If you are an article, technical or essay writer (
), there are many ways intelligence can lead you in to the trap of poor writing. Some of the more common traps are:
• Don’t use jargon in your writing that is unique to your profession or your topic. Most of these words and phrases aren’t likely to be understood or appreciated by lay people. While you may think this makes you appear super-intelligent, it only serves to make you appear pompous and out of touch with your audience.
• Do not assume everyone has the same knowledge you have. Take the time to explain difficult concepts, and use examples that the audience can easily relate to. For example, a mycologist (someone who studies mushrooms) might explain the underground network of fungal organisms by saying it’s similar to a telephone network. Help your audience understand by using examples they understand. Who hasn’t run into this kind of problem when reading a math textbook?
• Avoid mindblindness. Psychologists use the example of a young child entering a lab, opening a box of M&Ms and discovering it filled with pencils. The child will think that any other children entering the labs will know there are pencils in the box, and claim that they themselves also knew it. This example shows that to some people, it simply does not occur to them that other people don’t know what they know.
• Avoid thinking that people will know how to fill blanks left in your prose. What may seem the obvious next step or solution may not be obvious to anyone else. This kind of omission occurs often when people write instruction on how to do something.
If you don’t think concise
that is worded in such a way that most lay people can understand it, think a few pretty awful things that happened as a result of writing that was unclear- The Three Mile Island nuclear accident was attributed to poor wording regarding a label on a warning light. The confusing “butterfly ballot” may have led many to vote for George Bush rather than Al Gore, who was the intended choice. There are many more examples.
By following the above tips, you may be able to break the curse of intelligence that causes so many otherwise-smart people to write so poorly.
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