Write So the Reader Knows What You Mean
by Maxine Marsolini, OCW President
Words are magical. Words carry readers to faraway places, bind up wounded hearts, lift people up to try again, birth laughter, bring forth needed wisdom, and so much more. Words can also play tricks and beget a path of confusion. Do you remember a time when you were puzzled by a newspaper article, a page in a novel, or something as simple as a text message?
Unless close attention is paid to crafting words, they might be read in a way that completely twists our meaning. Most writers, me included, please our readers but occasionally add a sentence or two that steal them away to an entirely different and unintended destination.
A recent text conversation with a friend went like this:
Me: Our daughter’s family will be heading back to Spain soon. Could you come for a visit?
Friend: Thursday would be fine.
Me: OK good! 5 o’clock OK?
Friend: Yes. With kids at park.
The week went by with me making plans to meet my friends and their grandsons at a nearby park so the kids could play.
The day of the get-together, I called to confirm the plans. To my surprise I learned there’d be no children coming along. We both laughed about the big misunderstanding that had taken place.
Friend: Sorry. I meant I was at the park with the kids and couldn’t take time away to text just then.
The message lacked some important grammatical elements. Fixing two things in particular would have kept confusion at bay. “With kids at park” would have come across differently if the sentence had either begun with “I am” or ended with a question mark. Those two things would have kept me from reading an unintended message into her words.
Since what we write has the possibility of being taken the wrong way, let’s try to catch those little foxes before our stories, articles, and books go to print. There are two simple ways to avert those tricksters. First, read your own writing out loud. How does it sound to your ear? Second, ask a critique partner to read the piece. What does that person perceive the takeaway message to be? The goal is to write so readers don’t miss what the writer had in mind. S