TITLE: If You Want to Become a Better Writer... AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 05, 2015 3:57 PM DESC: ----- BODY: ... write for undergraduates. Why? Last fall, Steven Pinker took a stab at explaining why academics stink at writing. He hypothesizes that cognitive science and human psychology explain much of the problem. Experts often find it difficult to imagine that others do not know what experts know, which Pinker calls the curse of knowledge. They work around the limitations of short-term memory by packaging ideas into bigger and more abstract units, often called chunking. Finally, they tend to think about the things they understand well in terms of how they use them, not in terms of what they look like, a transition called functional fixity. Toward the end of the article, Pinker summarizes:
The curse of knowledge, in combination with chunking and functional fixity, helps make sense of the paradox that classic style is difficult to master. What could be so hard about pretending to open your eyes and hold up your end of a conversation? The reason it's harder than it sounds is that if you are enough of an expert in a topic to have something to say about it, you have probably come to think about it in abstract chunks and functional labels that are now second nature to you but are still unfamiliar to your readers--and you are the last one to realize it.
Most academics aren't trying to write bad prose. They simply don't have enough practice writing good prose.
When Calvin explained to Hobbes, "With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog," he got it backward. Fog comes easily to writers; it's the clarity that requires practice. The naïve realism and breezy conversation in classic style are deceptive, an artifice constructed through effort and skill.
Wanting to write better is not sufficient. Exorcising the curse requires writers to learn new skills and to practice. One of the best ways to see if the effort is paying off is to get feedback: show the work to real readers and see if they can follow it. That's where undergraduates come in. If you want to become a better writer or a better speaker, teach undergraduates regularly. They are about as far removed as you can get from an expert while still having an interest in the topic and some inclination to learn more about it. When I write lecture notes for my undergrads, I have to eliminate as much jargon as possible. I have to work hard to put topics into the best order for learners, not for colleagues who are also expert in the area. I have to find stories to illuminate ideas, and examples to illustrate them. When I miss the intended mark on any of these attempts, my students will let me know, either through their questions or through their inability to perform as I expected. And then I try again. My lecture notes are far from perfect, but they are always much better after a few iterations teaching a course than they are the first time I do. The weakest parts tend to be for material I'm adding to the course for the first time; the best parts tend to be revisions of existing material. These facts are no surprise to any writer or presenter, of course. Repetition and effort are how we make things better. Even if you do not consider yourself a teacher by trade, if you want to improve your ability to communicate science, teach undergrads. Write lecture notes and explanations. Present to live students and monitor lab sessions. The students will reward you with vigorous feedback. Besides, they are good people to get to know. -----