Reading Comprehension

One of the most frustrating things about writing is dealing with readers. We writers love our audiences, otherwise there’s a solid chance that most of us wouldn’t write. However, there are some readers who religiously miss the point.

As a novelist, I had one beta reader who focused so much on the grammar and punctuation in my story that she missed several key plot points. I’d like to point out that my grammar and punctuation are damn near perfect, so that made me think I didn’t clarify my plot enough. On the flip side, another of my beta readers caught on everything immediately. My duty as an author became finding a way to split the difference–how could I make my writing clearer without beating my readers over the head with obvious details?

As a corporate employee, I’ve had several colleagues who fail to grasp the gist of an email. I make a point to keep my emails short and sweet. They’re under 250 words 99% of the time, and if I can manage, they’re under 150. I don’t like to draw things out. You’ll notice my newer blog posts are significantly shorter than my old ones because there’s no need to be long-winded. People have things to do, places to go, people to see.

Back to the emails.

I sent an email which contained all of 20 words, and it was completely misinterpreted. I read it. I re-read it. I re-read it a third time just to see if maybe I said something out of place that could have been read incorrectly. There wasn’t. 20 words, for God’s sake. Even my attention span isn’t that short.

That brings me back to my work as a novelist. I’ve gone through the book again and again, looking for places where I maybe was too vague about the plot, but I’m not finding them. Maybe the plot needs to be adjusted, but that’s not the same as the details being absent. There is no reason someone should have missed that Character A has a sinister side when there’s an entire scene dedicated the woman breaking into someone’s house.

The moral of the story is this: writers, sometimes readers just don’t read. Remember those reading comprehension tests in school? These are not the people who scored high, and a lot of times, poor reading comprehension goes with poor listening skills. If you have to explain yourself in painstaking detail when speaking to someone, this is someone who is going to read a sentence, jump to conclusions, and disregard the rest of your carefully crafted world. This is not your fault, but it’s a reminder to be wise in choosing how you communicate and with whom you share something as important as your work.

Have you encountered any particularly frustrating moments when someone has misinterpreted you, either personally or in the work environment? How did you handle it?

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3 thoughts on “Reading Comprehension

  1. I can understand where you are coming from. It is wonderful to be direct and short but everyones mind’s different. Sometimes its far easier for some to interpret the information than others. Nice piece on a seldom touched topic.

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  2. Mis-communication is the norm, not the exception. Why is the world in the mess it’s in? People hear (or read) what they want or expect to hear. A basic tenet of group therapy is the check out your assumptions, and to ask for feedback to make sure the other person heard what you intended to say.

    I appreciate your asking for feedback. You never know what people take from an encounter. Also, a reader who criticizes or mis-understands is still a reader.

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