Office of Graduate Student External Grants and Fellowships | GradFund
The Curse of Knowledge
In order to write an effective funding proposal, it is necessary to translate what you know into something a review audience will be able to understand. This act of translation is often inhibited by the “curse of knowledge,” a phenomenon first identified by economists, and more recently developed by thinkers such as Steven Pinker. In his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014), Pinker describes the problem in the following way: “It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild…” (61). Indeed, learning the new “patois of our guild,” is a rite of passage on the path to becoming an independent scholar. New concepts and vocabulary that are specific to an academic discipline are tools used to discuss fine-grained aspects of the research. Nevertheless, different jobs call for different tools, and the common academic vocabulary between you and your adviser may not be appropriate for a proposal that is meant to speak to an audience of grant or fellowship reviewers.
So, how does this apply to you? What can you do if your work is “cursed by knowledge” when you crafting a grant or fellowship application? The first step is to conduct a self-assessment. If you are an advanced graduate student or a postdoc, you may have developed an approach to academic writing that is calibrated to resonate with your advisor and dissertation committee. Again, the approach of writing has its time and place, but for external award applications it is important to cultivate a writing style that is accessible, concise and conveys the significance of your work in broad terms. This means more than just eliminating jargon from your proposal. Ideally, your grant or fellowship application should walk the reviewer through a logical flow of ideas. Be wary of jumps in your logic and of making underlying assumptions about the baseline level of knowledge the reviewer will have about your topic.
A self-evaluation of your writing is a good starting point, but nothing helps you identify the curse of your knowledge than the eyes of a non-expert reader. When you work with a GradFund fellowship advisor and get feedback from us on your external funding applications, you will necessarily get the perspective from outside of your academic discipline. The fellowship advisor will help you troubleshoot areas of your writing that could confuse a reviewer and will help you craft your research proposal, personal statement, or other application essay in a way that connects the dots for a reviewer. You will see where you have been effective in communicating your ideas and where you have been “cursed by knowledge.”
Of course, there is more to effective proposal writing than overcoming “the curse of knowledge”. As we explain in other posts, you need to connect to the funder’s goals, and demonstrate that you have the necessary qualifications and a feasible plan to conduct your research. However, all of these elements require an approach to writing that keeps a spectrum of prospective expert and non-expert reviewers in mind.