One of the hardest things about writing

One of the hardest things about writing is figuring out exactly how whatever you say will be received. It’s true of fiction and non-fiction alike. The issue works on several levels. You, as author, know what you mean, and when you’re checking the material for sense that’s what you read into it. Sometimes, basic word omissions or large-scale misfirings happen. You know what you mean, but it somehow comes out a bit oddly. It’s a risk for every author, no matter how much they write. The way around that is to put the draft in a drawer for a week and come back to it. There’ll be a sudden ‘aha!’ moment when you re-visit. Trust me… Or have somebody else read it and comment. There are reasons why publishers hire proof-editors.

But there’s another way that meanings can be lost. You can get around the issue of mis-expression by that process of drawer-storage and independent proof-editing.

What none of this addresses, though, is the problem of reader reception. Ultimately, an author doesn’t know – and can’t know – how their material will be received by readers. What meanings will a reader draw from it, or read into it?

This is my typewriter on the Wellington waterfront one day. There are many like it, but this one is mine…

Often, on my experience, somebody will read something I’ve written and ‘grok’ what I am getting at. But sometimes they’ll draw something quite unexpected out of it. The mechanism is the same every time. No piece of writing can contain every nuance, every element of content that an author has in their mind. Thinking is not linear. Writing is. So anything written must be reduced to that linear thread. Because written material is also length-restricted – especially a blog post or similar – content also has to be reduced to material that is precisely relevant to a given idea or argument.

What this means is that a broader ‘thought picture’ – that perfect concept in mind – is either lost, or that the picture is instead spread across a wider area, the linear length of the written content. People reading that thread will trigger their own ‘simultaneous conceptual thinking’, perhaps because they haven’t yet got to the point that covers what they are thinking of. Or maybe that isn’t there at all in what they are reading. And so they’ll draw a different meaning from the written content. And that’s in spite of the author and everybody else involved making sure that the meaning as stated is crystal clear.

I reasonably often get feedback of this kind – ‘you didn’t think of such-and-such’. Actually, I usually did, but it wasn’t stated in the content because it wasn’t as relevant as other material in the linear thread.

Or something I’ve said that coincides with a reader’s thought will be taken and re-purposed by that reader as if it were part of that view. They then inform me of all the things I am supposed to think and believe, none of which are actually true.

It’s one of the hazards of writing, but it’s also one of the benefits. Sometimes a reader will see something the author never intended that adds a dimension and depth to the material. Meta-content, in effect, that the author did not think of but which nonetheless exists in their words. And that is one of the greatest rewards, I think, that a writer can have.  

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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4 thoughts on “One of the hardest things about writing

  1. That’s the danger and wonder of putting stuff out into the public realm. Sure there are risks, but the alternative is to keep it to oneself, which is a pretty poor option.

    1. Yes, one of the key points about writing is to get others to read it, absolutely… and with that, of course, the risk of misunderstanding. I guess it’s an occupational hazard. Although, I have to say, a hazard I’d prefer to (for instance) the ones faced by those who clean windows on tall buildings.

  2. I have to say that how an audience receives my writing is the very last thing on my mind. Not that it’s a conscious decision to ignore the audience. But clarity, saying exactly what I want to say about a subject, exploring it to the extent that’s possible given what I know about it and how I feel about it, is always primary. If anything, knowing that you can never predict how your work will be received, and that readers will have differing interpretations and reactions, writing with them in mind *shouldn’t* be the primary concern.

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