Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“If there is any possible way for readers to misread and misinterpret what you write, they will.”

Did you know that 80% of our communication is misunderstood?

Here’s how Kendall Haven says it:

“It has long been a guiding principle of writing that,
if there is any possible way
for readers to misread
and misinterpret
what you write,
they will.
The purpose of laborious
and tedious editing
is to make the writing so precise
that it cannot be misread
and misinterpreted.”
(emphasis mine; Kendall Haven, at A Storied Career)

Consider this oh-so-true statement:

“I know that you believe you understand
what you think I said,
but I’m not sure you realize that
what you heard
is not what I meant.”
(attributed to Robert McCloskey,
U.S. State Department spokesman)

So what are you, a memoir writer, to do about that?

After you’ve written a vignette for your memoir, put it aside for a few days and think about other things. Then, get out that manuscript and, with pen in hand, read it. You’ll be surprised at how objective you will be after stepping back from it for a while. Jot notes to yourself about changes you’d like to make.

Next, tell yourself that rewriting is not punishment and make those revisions, keeping in mind that every good writer revises his or her manuscript a number of times.

Then set aside your story again for a few days and then read it aloud. Your ears can alert you to what your eyes missed. Repeat this step as often as necessary until you’re satisfied.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and, for their sake, clarify. Simplify. Spell out.

Ask yourself, “Will they understand my story? Is it clear?”

Have you used lingo (Christianese, for example) or language (foreign or technical, for example) your readers might not understand?

Reword everything that could send an ambiguous meaning or cause confusion.

Most of all, have fun spiffing up your rough drafts! Revision is an art: polish your story and make it beautiful.

Remember, your stories are important. Stories can change individuals, families, communities, towns, nations—and even the world!

Stories can change lives for eternity. Write your stories!


  1. Linda, I really like this message and believe our greatest obligation as writers is to put forth our best stories for our readers. You have some great tips here. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Kathy. You are always so full of encouragement and I'm thankful you're my friend. :)


  2. You do such good work over here, Linda. Thanks for this good reminder about clarity, revision and the dreadful trap of misunderstanding.

  3. Diana, your writing is always so vibrant, so deep. You teach me about writing but even more: you teach me about life and faith. You are a gift!


  4. Thanks so much for this. 80% - that's high.

    I guess that makes sense. We don't have the body language, the voice inflection to help us with the meaning.