Does Your Message Get Across?

No, don’t worry, I am not going to go all day-job on you and subject you to one of my training courses.  But, while I was doing a lot of training and no writing last week, one thing struck me quite forcibly.

How many times I explained an exercise or a concept with what seemed to me limpid clarity… only to have the participants ask questions which made it equally clear that my message had been misunderstood.  At least in a training room, you usually get immediate feedback and can rephrase, reformulate, explain.  Even mime your message, if all else fails.

What can you do in writing, however?  It got me thinking about all the times I had written a story or a poem, and it became obvious from people’s reactions to it that I had not managed to convey what was in my head and heart. Luckily, when you post a poem online, you get a few valuable comments from readers, which show you what has been understood, how things are perceived, what bits are most impactful.  The Like button is sweet stroking for the ego, but not quite as helpful in this regard (and yes, I admit, I use it myself when I am pressed for time, but want to show that I have read the poem or story).

Perhaps that doesn’t matter in a poem, which is the original onion amongst the writing genres anyway.

Most of the time, however, in traditional publishing, you do not get an immediate reaction.  You hear from an agent or an editor or a critic – from the professionals, very seldom from the readers who are neither friends nor family. Does this have an impact on your writing?  Should it have an impact? Should you test out your ‘new material’ in a writing group, for instance?  Or should you just ignore what people say and go ahead and write regardless?

I am not quite sure I have cracked the answer to this one for myself.  I would love to hear your thoughts on it.  What I do know is that famous George Bernard Shaw quote: ‘The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

And, in case you are wondering what my message is in all of this, it’s that I love, love, love your comments and that I welcome your criticism, because it helps me to improve my writing.

27 thoughts on “Does Your Message Get Across?”

  1. What a humbling post, and very timely for me. Not necessarily on the writing front as I am cheerfully unconcerned about that part. Novels are open to interpretation and at least with the written word, people can go back and try again. Reviews to date suggest that only a very small handful of people didn’t quite ‘get’ what I was on about.

    But communication is a real challenge in my house at the moment. With the boys they age they are, I tend to assume that they understand what I am ranting on about, but nine times out of ten, I suspect they don’t. I further suspect that I expect too much, and I must scale back both my expectations and my communication. I need to simplify, and double check, and have them repeat back, and be a lot… lot… lot more patient. Thank you for this fab post!

    1. Ah, yes, I’ve got that problem too! Never short of words, I tend to go on and on… and on and on… while they roll their eyes, look bored, have no idea what I am going on about. They may not always tell me that they don’t understand, or they may just be selective in their understanding.

  2. Sometime we have to chose: being understood, or, being liked! I have liked books without any certainty of having understood what the author really meant. Does it matter? On Nicky’s last point: young people rightly ignore much of what we say as parents, teachers, coaches or whatever: what they will remember if the feelings. Of course it’s important to get feedback! 🙂

    1. Or maybe the choice is between being understood and being disliked? I know I have abandoned books that were too heavy going and incomprehensible. But, as you say, there are some that I have loved without caring too much about whether I understood them or not.

  3. I’ve been doing this MA in creative writing for a couple of months now, and one thing I’ve had fairly rammed down my throat is how open to interpretation novels are – and should be. Each week we read a different book, and each week the range of reactions and understandings are incredibly varied. As are the reactions and insights to our own pieces of writing.

    I think as a writer you have to send your work out there into the big wide world and let it go. You can never be sure people will get what you are trying to say, you can only try to say it as clearly as possible – and as Honore says, it’s important to get feedback before you send it out there. Maybe the most you can hope for is to affect a reader in some way, to touch them, whether they understand your message or not. I know your poems always touch me, Marina (even though I’m pretty rubbish at understanding them). 🙂

    1. You are so right, of course. There is a website that does seek to explain the motivations and thoughts behind a poem – by simply asking the poet who wrote it about it.
      It’s a lovely idea and a fascinating read. But I do think that a work of literature ultimately belongs to the readers as much as to the writer.

  4. Great post. I do find that sometimes the writing I am most concerned about and most want comments on get the fewest – almost as if people think I am joking. Maybe I have not made myself well known in the ‘write’ circles but in creative writing it is hard to know how to couch a request for constructive criticism online. The very responses one craves can be misinterpreted and counter productive. Perhaps when it comes to interpretation a better question is ‘how does this post make you feel?’…..

    1. It’s funny, isn’t it, that even in blogging I realise that my favourite posts are not the ones that are getting the most responses, or that the poems that I like most are the ones that are least read?
      I do find myself mainly commenting on how a post/story/poem made me feel, rather than arguing about its content or style. Unless there are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, of course…

  5. Marina Sofia – You’ve brought up such an interesting and important question. How do we ensure that we have really communicated what we think we have communicated? What I do, for what it’s worth, is rely on my group of beta readers, who care enough about me to tell me the truth, and who also care enough about me to want me to succeed at writing. My beta readers always tell me exactly what needs to be done.

  6. Great post, Marina. I can see this from two sides. My husband, as a director, talks all the time about how some customers of his company don’t understand the weekend support policies of his company, (support is not 24/7, only best effort) and they can be extremely rude. I’ve often asked him why something very clear isn’t put out stating this, and he hasn’t said it straight out, but has said enough to make me think the person in charge isn’t willing to be firm with the very rude people.

    With my own writing, I agree with what the others have said about it being open to interpretation. I have had people offer to be my beta readers when I am done with my novel, and I am hoping to get honest reactions from them which will make it better. I have also appreciated some of the comments on my blog which let me know that I have made an impact on the people who have read the entries.

    1. Sometimes we don’t want to be understood, good point! I think politicians are very good at that, so that they can never be pinned down then to their past promises.

  7. I used to love my writing group and wish I still had one. I started my blog because I felt the need to connect with readers and writers, and it has been a wonderful experience. But still, a certain amount of my writing must remain solo for a certain amount of time or it will run off like a shy child.

    I fantasize about having an editor, one reader who sees what I’m doing and can help me get there. But I think that is a rare thing and only happens to a handful of writers. Still, it is a delicious fantasy: Big man/woman with reading glasses in the clouds, looking over me with an amused smile, whispering directions.

  8. I am entirely sympathetic to your concern to connect.
    After a lifetime of rending shirts and tearing hair over mis-communication, I have decided to just say it, as best I can, and leave the wondering to posterity.
    Often, I am not sure we have advanced very far from the eloquent grunts and gestures of homo habilis.

    1. ‘Leave the wondering to posterity’ – absolutely! Although I suppose there are degrees of mis-communication: I wouldn’t people to think my tragedy is a comedy or vice versa.

      Meanwhile, I will seek to master that arch look, which shows I may be hiding something far more profound beneath the platitudes of my words. Thank you for your comment, you have a wonderfully witty style!

  9. This post reminds me of the first time someone asked me to beta read a novel in four quarters. I didn’t really know what was required, so decided to just read and note both the passages that made me soar, the places where I raced through wanting to know more and the places where my brow furrowed or I had to go back and reread.

    The encouraging elements are essential, because we all know the sensitivity of being a writer and how much we do enjoy this feedback, but I also think it emboldens us to receive the more critical feedback.

    As a reader sometimes we feel a little stupid sharing these places where “I didn’t get it” – as with some literary fiction, sometimes it is difficult to know what’s going on, but in this case it was appreciated.

    Knowing where a reader gets confused or annoyed has to be a good thing to know before publication, just as it is in reading people’s faces or realising that too many questions came after the explanation. Great post!

    1. Great comment, thank you, Claire. If only we could all be clear about where we get confused as a reader, listener, employee or whatever role we are in, and not fall silent for fear of being thought ‘stupid’, then the feedback could be a lot more valuable. As long as the writer, speaker, manager etc. is open to receiving it, of course.

  10. Great topic. For me, where it pertains to running our work by others — writers groups, etc. — is timely. I’ve been giving more and more thought to critique groups. I was fortunate enough to be a member of an excellent one for a long while, the remnant of an excellent class. But I’ve encountered many groups, over the years, that … well … have included a share of folks whose critiques were somewhat uninformed.

    I was struck when I read Stephen King’s “On Writing.” He writes once “with the door closed” (his draft) and again with the door “open.” (Revisions, etc.) I’ve become more protective about my drafts. Sure, I’ll toss them up on the blog … and it’s nice to get that immediate feedback. But when I’m going to submit something, I tend now to work it alone beforehand. When I finally press “send” … I let go of it.

    And, yes, the point about giving feedback is well taken. I offer a class wherein participants give feedback to one another. I think as much is learned in that process as in receiving.

    I suppose it amounts to what works best for each writer/communicator. I’m still working at it.

    Joanne’s quote resonates: “Maybe the most you can hope for is to affect a reader in some way, to touch them …”

    As does Girl in a Hat’s:

    “But still, a certain amount of my writing must remain solo for a certain amount of time or it will run off like a shy child.”

    Certainly a ripe topic. Thanks for bringing it up!

    1. Closed door and open door drafts – an excellent notion. And you are touching on another good point: the immediate (or fast) feedback and the slow (more thoughtful, often more critical) feedback. We probably need both.

  11. I started this reply off by writing ‘I wish I had a bit more time to respond to this post, Marina, but for now, this will have to suffice (!)’ Then I found I’d written an essay 🙂 So here’s what I wrote:

    Communication, it seems to me, is at the base of many problems in our communities, in our society, as a whole. We hear about it and experience it in so many ways. Fred Smith hasn’t been told about one thing. Eva May doesn’t know anything about another. Emails are mysteriously ‘not received’; telephone calls and voicemails are not answered; texts sit on mobiles for days on end; meeting minutes are not published, sometimes not even taken. If there were a simple solution, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    It seems that much of what we write is interpreted by readers in terms of their own experiences / knowledge. It’s also clear that many people are turned off by terms / phrases they don’t understand. So I guess that the clearer we can be in our writing, the better. However, having said that, there are those who are turned of by a ‘simple’ approach and who prefer to have more challenging pieces to read.

    So maybe there’s something about knowing your audience (?)

    From personal experience, I have found that it is good to share new writing with a writing circle; I joined one a few months back and the more we get to know each other the more constructive feedback is given.

    For sure, editors / those who run competitions seem to know what they’re looking for. A quick look at previous winners / what’s already published can sometimes help the writer to know what to send to a specific publisher.

    But beyond all of the above, I would suggest that as writers we need to be pleased with our work. The blogs are a great way of finding out how others view our work and bloggers will give feedback given the time and impetus.

    We live such busy lives, perhaps we should be astounded when we get comments totalling more than a dozen. There are some bloggers who get many more, but for poetry blogs IMHO that would be pretty considered OK. Like you, I think it a pleasure and a privilege to receive comments from others, but, since I sometimes only have time to ‘like’ a post, it’s clear that that’s all I’ll get from some others too.

    This is a really interesting post, Marina ~ thank you ~ it’s made me think and write much more than I anticipated when I started 🙂

    1. Thank you, Polly, for your thoughtful reply. Your comments are always helpful – you pinpoint the most striking phrase or an alliteration I was only half-aware of, you grapple with meaning, you laugh in the right places… An ideal audience, I would say.
      I too feel that (mis)communication seems to be at the heart of our problems in society or between couples or parents and children or among friends. Perhaps we are talking too much and not listening enough – that’s what it feels like sometimes (I know I do more than my share of that, especially with my kids). And you pinpoint perfectly that unease that we have with ‘difficult’ poetry or concepts – anything that requires some effort to tease out and unravel, or anything that requires us to dig deeper into our emotional selves. I think I may often have deliberately ‘misunderstood’ the message… simply to avoid having to look too deeply at uncomfortable truths.

      1. Thanks for your response to my response (!) and for your kind words.

        Maybe it is something to do with talking rather than listening. Unease with ‘difficult’ things does perhaps lead to misunderstandings ~ we just have to get on with it and do our best (as we used to say on a weekly basis) 🙂

  12. A friend of mine read one of my poems and after I told him the story of how I came to write it he immediately read it again.
    When I asked him why and whether or not he thought he’d get more out of it he answered:

    “It’s not that I expect to get more out of your work this time. My first interpretation of your poem was more a reflection of my own personality and my beliefs because I approached it without any presumptions, I saw what I saw because I am who I am. Although this time it’ll be a bit different of course. Because I know the background and the story that lead to that poem, I now hope to see what you saw”

    I shouldn’t say that agree with this completely but there’s a case to be made that we can’t completely disregard who we are while we’re reading and for that reason we’ll occasionally see something else than what the writer intended.

    It might sometimes be frustrating feeling that I didn’t manage to get my message across but it’s also interesting, and even amusing sometimes, to see other ways of interpreting my writing because I think those interpretations represents other world views and other personalities, I always consider them to be valuable.
    I think it’s enriching, exhausting and totally worth it 🙂

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