Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: On Writers & Intent

I have always feared misinterpretation. Whether the gap between my intended meaning and the received meaning is the result of poor communication on my part, or poor comprehension on the part of the reader is, for me, secondary to the fact of the gap exists at all. As a writer, I have a dedicated responsibility to clarity of thought and expression. If I cannot come as close as possible to accurately saying what I want to say, then I’m failing to do my job. This is fine to a point. But what about situations wherein the topic is so charged that no amount of care and clarity can prevent the message from disintegrating in the reception?

Recently, the media has been covering the rise of what is being called “rape culture” on high school and college campuses – that is, the prevalence of young women drinking to incapacitation and young men engaging in (often) nonconsensual sex acts with them. Steubenville, Marysville and other similar cases have opened up the discussion of how rape is treated by everyone from a Montana judge to frat bros.

In the middle of this, Emily Yoffe, a writer at Slate, published an article suggesting that young women take steps to protect themselves by not drinking to excess at parties. Her tone was measured and her message fairly clear. But while the story was met with support by some, the majority of responses were vitriolic in their mis/interpretation. In the face of varied and vocal criticism, Yoffe then wrote a follow-up article, attempting clarify her message and acknowledge the situation while not backing down. Again, her tone was measured, but it was too late – her message had already been mis/interpreted and appropriated. No amount of follow-on could retrieve her original intent.

The merits and / or flaws in Yoffe’s position aren’t what interest me here. What interests me is that Yoffe’s attempts to control her message didn’t work. Not at all. And so, what I’m curious about is this: at what point does a writer’s ability to control her message end?

The answer, I suspect, is one I don’t particularly like. I suspect that it ends the moment the article, opinion, editorial, post, story, text, tweet or email gets read. After that, a writer can attempt to do damage control, but if a message is derailed, it’s nearly impossibly to get it back on the tracks, (as evidenced by Yoffe).

The bottom line is that readers are free to respond to a writer’s work in any way they like, through the lens of any experience, bias or ideology. The reader has the power to misinterpret, appropriate or spin anything you say. It’s like a game of telephone. So then, what’s the point? If words are essentially a Rorschach test, why do we bother stringing them together to communicate at all?

The answer to that question. and the value of the effort, is in the attempt at communication. The thing to do, whether you’re writing an email or a tweet, is craft your thoughts as consciously as you can. Be clear. Be concise. Write with the reader in mind. Compel, argue, debate and cajole. And then let it go. It’s ok. If people read your words, and misunderstand, it may be a personal frustration for you, but culturally speaking, those words will still have had an impact and prompted discussion. They will have stirred emotions and triggered thoughts.

It’s the discussion that leads to progress, as incremental as progress is. Ultimately, you cannot control your message any more than you can control how people think, but you can communicate clearly and well, and hopefully then, your thoughts will be heard, and prompt discussions of their own.

4 thoughts on “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: On Writers & Intent

  1. Though not as inflammatory as rape, gun control is a ‘hot button’, as well. Case in point, re: what the writer intends to say and how it is misinterpreted – to the point of not even being ‘the point.’ I just sent you an article via Facebook about KU Professor Guth and his tweet regarding the shooting at the Navy Yard in DC. He received national attention and the ire of the NRA; KU Alums who threatened to recend their support; KS State legislators who threated withholding funding to the University; death threats; and the list goes on. Basically, as a journalism professor, his communication skills, in this instance, went down the tubes. His tweet has to be read a couple of times to be sure you’re reading it the way he intended…he just chose social media to (wrongly) vent.

    Many of ‘us’ are guilty of using social media to share thoughts, ideas, information, and personal communication. It’s been my experience that if there’s a point to be made, whether personal, professional, or somewhere in-between – there’s no substitution for ‘eye to eye’ exchanges – OR the phone. Little icons, for that extra expression, are fun on a personal level – certainly not in a professional exchange. Fact based communication, without any investment in emotional giving and receiving of information, works fairly well…ie: ‘Just give me the facts, ma’am.”

    So, having said all that, it’s entirely possible some of what I’ve just written could very well be misconstrued. That’s the risk of the writer and if one is willing to take it. Over-thinking what to write or not to write can stifle the creative process. Forcing people to think or possibly have an emotional response is often a good thing. However, that is assuming the writer has an awareness of the world and its inhabitants…and, rightfully, doesn’t want to hurt/harm any worthwhile causes, slander anyone, or become a public nuisance. In summation – expect to piss-off some readers and charm others. Rule of my thumb – WRITE.

    • You’re absolutely spot on, Susan, particularly when you rightly stated that over-thinking can stifle the creative process. Even worse, it leads to self-censoriship, which is both dangerous and unproductive. That said, the example of the KU professor who tweeted an off-the-cuff response without thinking it through is also valuable (thanks for sending me the link – I haven’t looked at it yet, but I’m *very* interested and will do so asap). The balance between over thinking and not thinking lies in respecting the fact that what you say / write has an effect – whether it’s the intended effect or not. You definitely can’t control how people receive something, but you can accurately express yourself. To paraphrase what you said, charm them, piss then off, but above all, represent yourself consciously, write with integrity and to hell with the rest. 🙂

  2. Thank you for a very thoughtful blog post. My concern is that there are certain topics that have become so inflammatory that no amount of clarity or precision of language will keep you safe from intentional misrepresentation. The topic itself becomes a lightning rod for people who wish to espouse an absolutist, unnuanced view. The only way to avoid those sorts of ‘misreadings’ is to not bring the topic up. This results in a very effective form of censorship masquerading under the guise of political correctness.

    • Thank you do much for posting such a considered response. I share your concern. While the unintentional misunderstanding of a message is, at least, honest, intentional misrepresentation is something else altogether. What is particularly distressing is how common it has become for media outlets, pundits and invested parties on both sides of an issue to intentionally twist, generalize or otherwise misrepresent the opposition’s message. It’s a form of mass manipulation and, unfortunately, our society is, generally speaking, easily manipulated. In the face of all of this, I am often tempted to avoid inflammatory topics, because you are right – no amount of clarity or diplomacy will keep you safe from intentional misrepresentation. I suppose it comes down to a choice – one can either address the taboo and inflammatory, and risk making people uncomfortable, (and thus reactionary), or one can choose to stay relatively safe and unchallenging. It’s an unfortunate dichotomy. Discussion would be much more productive if it weren’t so deeply ingrained.

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