What I Meant Was…

“I don’t think this grade is fair,” the student complained, pushing the essay toward me.

“Let’s see; you make a statement there that you don’t explain. Here, you put in a statement that has no connection with anything else you’re talking about. This statement makes no sense to me at all.”

“Yeah, but what I meant was…”

This is a conversation I’ve had with students more than I’d like to admit. They have a hard time putting themselves in their readers’ shoes and adequately explaining their thoughts.

This isn’t limited to the classroom. Many people post things on social media and get slammed because what they wrote is misinterpreted.

In the business world, when people don’t understand written information, it can get very costly, especially when it comes to customer relations.  A customer who feels ignored or offended won’t come back and won’t recommend that business to anyone else.

So, how do we make sure the reader knows exactly what we mean?

  1. Remember the reader can’t see or hear us. Unlike face-to-face communication, there are no facial expressions, body movements, or changes in voice tone to reinforce what we say. There are only the words before the readers. (This is why, unless you are very good, you should avoid sarcasm and irony.)
  2. Readers are not psychic. Readers can’t look into our brains for background information. If we know our audience, we can get an idea of what they may already know. However, it’s a good idea to err on the side of giving a little bit more information than not providing enough.
  3. Use precise words. The greatest thing about the English language is that it has the richest vocabulary in the world. Each word’s connotation (or “flavor”) can evoke in the reader just the response we want.
  4. Don’t throw in words that don’t do any work. I’m all in favor of cutting the “draggers” out of copy. Words and phrases people think sound “smart” actually drag readers away from seeing what we really mean. Business people hate wasting time sifting through unnecessary syllables to get to the meat of the idea. (Read some government “officialese” sometime to understand what to avoid.)
  5. Logically connect the ideas. When we don’t clearly, logically connect our ideas in our writing, it messes with readers’ comprehension. We want to be like tour guides and lead the readers through our ideas, so they can “ooh” and “ahh” at our brilliance.
  6. Don’t wait until the third page to put in the important stuff. As a journalist, I had to answer the four Ws in the first paragraph. Not all writing needs that, but we can’t leave the reader waiting too long for a clue to what we’re writing about. Chances are they won’t get that far in. I’m not saying we should shove everything at them at once, but we do need to give them a taste or idea of what’s coming to keep them interested.
  7. Have someone read it as a test. If the work is important, someone who can critique it for understanding and clarity is priceless. Now, we may not need to do this for Facebook posts, but for things like business reports, letters, and school papers, it is essential.
  8. Read it out loud! I tell this to everyone I know. I’m sure people think reading something out loud is goofy and unnecessary. Hey! I thought so, too. What I found (once I got over the initial awkwardness) was that I caught many, many mistakes when things didn’t sound right. If it doesn’t sound right, it needs to be rewritten until it does.

Making our thoughts clear through writing isn’t always easy, but it’s not rocket science either. We always have to remember what we need to do to make sure the reader, without any doubt, gets what we mean.