Here’s a great essay that attempts to identify “The Source of Bad Writing,” by Steven Pinker, who makes the case that bad writing is often caused by the “curse of knowledge.” This curse afflicts writers who assume, consciously or not, that their readers understand as much about their topic as they do. Of course, bad writing is often caused by a poor understanding of grammar, sentence structure, and other technical aspects of the art. But to anyone with a reasonable grasp of those elements, the curse of knowledge can poison the the writer’s well.
The curse tends to cause errors of omission, such as a failure to explain basic points that the author takes for granted. It can lead to errors in emphasis, as when writers minimize issues that might yield significant insights to different classes of readers. In technical writing, the curse can corrupt a piece grounded in sound concepts, allowing it to become something tedious or even unintelligible. In prose, by degrees, it can sap the finished product of beauty and emotion, stunting development of character, and diminishing its potential to evoke flights of imagination. The curse can even corrupt the conveyance of basic pieces of information, like the non-descriptive email titles that Pinker bemoans.
I tell you, all writing is at risk from the curse of knowledge! But if I left anything out, Pinker’s essay should cover me.