Say what you mean: All that readers have is the text

Readers of your book will assume you mean what you say. They don’t know you, the actual author. They can only extrapolate who the implied author is from what they read. The text is the lens through which they see you—or think they do.

Author’s intention means little

You as the author won’t be able to explain what you meant the text to say. This is why it’s essential to make really sure that the text actually says what you think it says.

So let’s get real.

If there’s a typo…

…readers forgive, ignore, or don’t notice it.

If you use punctuation in odd ways…

…readers may get frustrated or lower their regard for you as the author implied by the text. 

If passages tend to be opaque or confusing…

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

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

…readers will not only stop reading, they may come away with strongly negative impressions of who you are as the author.

If you as the author use words, phrases, or passages that can be taken as offensive, it won’t matter whether that’s what you intended. Who you really are won’t come into play. They’ve read your text, and they will assume that what you said in the text is what you mean as an author—that it’s a reflection of who you are. After-the-fact clarifications will do little to ameliorate their initial reactions.

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.

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

  • 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.

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