Skip to main content

Say what you mean

· reading time: 3 mins

Readers of your book will assume you mean what you say. You, the author, don’t get to explain what you meant the text to say.

Does the text actually say what you think it says?

All you have is the text #

The text is the lens through which they see you — or think they do.

Of course, they don’t know you, the actual author. They can only extrapolate from what they read, guessing at what kind of person the implied author must be.

If there’s a typo… #

…readers forgive, ignore, or don’t notice it (unless there are a lot of typos).

If you use punctuation in odd ways… #

…readers may get frustrated, wonder at these choices, or even assume you don’t know what you’re doing.

If passages tend to be opaque or confusing… #

…readers will put the book down, and may very well never pick it up again.

If aspects of the story or argument come off as offensive… #

…readers may stop reading, or read on with increasingly negative impressions of who you are as the author.

Author’s intention means little #

If you as the author use words, phrases, or passages that are taken as offensive, it won’t matter whether offense is what you intended. They’re reading your text. They will assume that it says what you mean — that these offensive expressions or passages are a true reflection of who you are.

You as the author won’t be able to explain what you meant to say. Even if you attempt to engage in after-the-fact clarifications, that will achieve little in altering their initial reactions.

This is why it’s essential to make really sure that the text actually says what you think it says.

Words often can be read more than one way #

If you unthinkingly or unintentionally write something that people will interpret as racist or homophobic or misogynist or otherwise offensive, wouldn’t you want to revise your writing to clarify your intent? The time to do that is before publishing.

You may think it’s no big deal. But others will think it is a very big deal indeed. And then your nice story about the office worker finding romance is suddenly about the insecure, angry person who is an unthinking bigot.

This is why getting feedback on your writing is so essential.

So let’s get real. #

  • Recruit beta readers.
  • Join or start a crit group with other authors.
  • Hire a professional editor to strengthen your voice and catch those problems big and small.

Remember, this isn’t about censorship #

Whether you’re going through a professional editor’s notes or comments from an alpha reader, you as the author are always the final arbiter as to what changes to make. You can accept or reject what other people recommend. What I’m talking about is recognizing that different people have different experiences, cultures mix and change, mores evolve, and language shifts over time.

Of course, you can avoid getting feedback of any kind—or reject concerns raised by your beta readers, crit partners, and/or editors and insist on leaving the text as-is.

Either way, it’s your name on the cover #

Writing is hard enough. You put your words out there, hoping people will be affected by them, hoping that all the things you tried to do, the things you intended will connect with readers. It’s only harder if you have things in your text you’d never even considered coming flying back at you out of the blue.