Want to improve your writing? Mind the Gap.

Photo: Wikipedia

Everybody who wants to be a writer has a reason. For some, it’s the idea of “hitting it big” with a bestseller. For others, it’s a desire for accomplishment, to do something so few others have done. For others still, it’s a simple love for the written word.

But really, we’re all on the same quest: we all want to have our stories read by more people, to spread and share the information and wisdom we have acquired over the years. To share our stories, experiences, and knowledge is a profoundly human desire.

We love to share. That’s part of what makes us human.

But maybe we’re taking the wrong tack. If we want to truly spread knowledge, perhaps we should approach writing in a different way.

In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, brothers Chip and Dan Heath note that if we want to make our stories resonate more effectively with our audience, we should start not with what information we wish to convey, but rather, start with a simple question:

“What questions do I want my audience to ask?”

Beginning in this way exposes the “gap” between what we think we know and what we actually know.

Research has shown that we are typically overconfident about how much we know. In the 1990s, researcher George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon University gave this a name: the Curiosity Gap Theory.

It’s the idea that a gap always exists in our minds between what we think we know and what we actually know…and it drives us crazy.

This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. So we continually seek out new knowledge — that’s how we scratch the itch.

While the gap between what what think we know and what we actually know can be a danger for writers — Impostor Syndrome is real — it also represents an opportunity for us, because this gap exists in the minds of readers as well. According to Loewenstein, the key to telling compelling stories — to convincing people that they need to hear our message — is to first highlight some specific knowledge that they’re missing.

But won’t highlighting the gaps in our knowledge frustrate our readers or turn them elsewhere? Once you scratch the itch, won’t it go away? If curiosity arises from these “gaps” of knowledge, we might assume that when we know more, we’ll become less curious (because there are fewer gaps in our knowledge).

But Loewenstein argues that the opposite is true: he posits that even as we gain information, we are more and more likely to focus on what we don’t know.

And therein lies a huge opportunity for writers: scratch the itch by highlighting the “gaps” that exist in our knowledge, and you’ll be well on your way to telling stories that resonate.

So next time you press that “New Story” button, don’t start with what you want to write. Ask yourself: “What are my readers curious about? What questions do I want them to ask?” What do they not know what’s driving them crazy?

Want to become a better writer? Help your readers fill their gaps.

Helping each other write better.
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