Thursday, January 21, 2016

Will readers misunderstanding or misinterpret your writing?

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—or two or three or ten—set your work aside for a few days (or better yet, a few weeks) and think about other things.

Later, print your manuscript. Reading it on a computer screen is different from reading it on paper. I can’t explain why that’s true, but it is: I always catch boo-boos on paper that I miss on the computer screen.  

With printout and pen in hand, read. You’ll be surprised how objective you’ll be after stepping back from your story for a while. Jot notes to yourself about changes to make.

Next, make those revisions, keeping in mind that every good writer revises his or her manuscript a number of times.

Set aside your manuscript again for a few days or weeks and then print it and 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 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. I can relate to this. I thought I was the only one with the problem of being misunderstood or not making myself clear, in writing and in speaking, lol. It's good to know I have a lot of company :-) Blessings. xx

    1. Hi, Penny. Within a couple of hours of publishing this blog post, my two brothers and I were exchanging emails and sure enough, one of them misunderstood what I said. I hadn't made it clear! Oops! Thanks for stopping by, dear Penny. :)