Many moons ago (about ten years) when I did my English Literature degree, I was in a seminar discussing ownership of words and ideas. The basis of my lecturer’s theory was that once words have been written you can’t control them. It doesn’t matter how clear you are during the writing process, once your words are being “consumed” they’re no longer yours to shape.
I like to imagine it as a little scene inside a dusty old attic.
The writer is hard at work, bent over a creaky table writing in longhand. The words come alive, dancing on the page. He has a choice to let the words be free, or to shut them in a box. He chooses freedom, knowing that is also the end of his control. Standing at an open window, the writer watches his words flutter out into the world, ready to climb inside the head of anyone who reads them. The writer can’t follow the words inside every head. He can only stand at the window and wave his words goodbye.
It’s not a new idea, but it’s one I think is still incredibly current – especially in the 140 character Twitter world in which we live.
Let me explain.
A little while ago, I wrote a post called How Do You Decide What Your Blog Is Worth? for Geekalicious. It was all about blogging and commercialisation of blogs – namely, how we value our own blogs.
As with much of my writing, I wrote it, had it published and then forgot about it in the minefield of my current crazy working / mum life. Today I was reminded of the post, after a fellow blogger told me (via Twitter) that she didn’t like my tone.
One of the things I really love about blogging and Twitter is that you can share opinions. And I wasn’t offended by the critical tweet. I just politely agreed to disagree. But after a bit of tweeting back and forth, the blogger (who blogs at Kelloggsville) came back with a tweet I wholeheartedly agreed with:
“It’s problem in a 2D words world. Body language and tone removed and readers fill in perceived gaps.”
This is SO true. When you write something, you might have a clear idea in your head of how your words sound. But those words are in YOUR head.
Once they’re out in the world, being read by others, they’ll be in other heads, read by people with different opinions, experiences and memories to you. It doesn’t matter how clear you try to be, there will always be the chance your words will not be read in the way you intended them.
The thing is, I don’t think that matters. If you spent your whole life trying to tailor your words (or language) to only ever be consumed in one way, with one point of view, you’d be fighting a losing battle. Plus, wouldn’t that make the world a rather boring place?
On this occasion, my post was interpreted as “sarcastic” and “condescending”. That’s fine. I disagree, but that’s fine. That’s the way my writing was read by that particular reader and there’s nothing I can do about it – apart from let her know that wasn’t my intention and apologise if she was offended.
I’m well aware that once you write something (and publish it on a blog or book or newspaper or magazine or social media platform or piece of paper stuck to a tree) it’s out there in the big wide world of different opinions and ideas and experiences. I’m well aware that I could unintentionally write something another person was offended by.
But I’m also aware that if I spent my whole time worrying about that I would never write anything at all.
How about you? Do you tailor your words carefully in the fear they may be taken “the wrong way”? Is interpretation something you even consider before hitting “publish”?
I totally agree wholeheartedly reason being as my words caused me to lose a dear friend and consequently an entire group of friends. It’s a scar that is still very much open and taking a long time to heal.
It was also incredibly frustrating that every single time I tired to explain myself it was STILL read differently to how I meant it and therefore caused me only to dig an even huger hole.
Not only that, the whole family who were ‘friends’ on Facebook started reading all of my updates in the same tone and I would be hijacked with hate pm messages.
It was a heartbreaking and very difficult time that resulted in me blocking a lot of people so I could sleep at night
Great post – thanks
Oh goodness, I’m sorry you’ve had to go through something like that. It’s definitely a hazard of writing publically, whether it be through books, blogging or newspapers. Worth keeping in mind. Did you find that experience now limits your writing in any way? Are you afraid to write openly due to fear of how your words will be interpreted?
I think I think too much, hence why I never publish anything remotely controversial…..i need a new blog…
I guess that’s why some people feel so much freedom writing anonymously. You don’t have to worry how your words are interpreted or if you offend someone, because they don’t know it’s you!
Fab post and I think this is something that a lot of BLOGGERS need to read. You are a writer and writers understand this.
I love for people to have opinions and share them. I hate that people beat about the bush and do not often say what they thing for the fear of offending people. We are all different.
However, I think that as bloggers we always need to be aware that our words have an impact. I think that sometimes we put them out there without thinking that they will remain there for ever!
This is such a good point. And the same can be said of any form of social media I think. It’s such a personal connection and one that can have a big impact on real life relationships. But you’re right, if you thought about it too much you’d be (or I would anyway) paralysed with fear of upsetting someone. I’d never write anything at all!
I didn’t, until I did a BBC interview and it was edited in a way that someone in my family took offence. For some reason. We don’t talk anymore and she has never even met Bella. Since then I do think twice when I speak about my son’s birth and when I write about it too. Yes, the written word can be taken the wrong way, as can the spoken word. Sometimes people misunderstand or read what they want into what you’ve said. Nothing you can do about that though.
It must be awful when real life personal relationships are affected by something someone has written. I imagine it happens more and more with the huge explosion of social media. And in your case it wasn’t even something you could control, as the editing was out of your hands. But you’re right, words are bound to be interpreted in different ways by different people. I’m sorry you had such a horrid experience. x
As you have said so well, perception is unfortunately reality. And the emotional inclination of the reader at the time also has a massive impact on how they formulate the perception of the text. You probably had to walk the morning in my moccasins to understand why/how I received the original article in a less favourable light than I might have done had my mood been a little more joie de vivre.
In fairness I initially thought I was having the conversation on twitter with the blog hosted, someone I have been talking to now for many years, rather than throwing an insult as my welcome mat to a stranger. But I should know better as it was a publically made comment which I must take total responsibility for.
I don’t think I thought too hard about it really, and there continues to lie the danger of conversation of glib within twitter. Twitter is not a park bench nor pub and more care is required than often it seems. I totally apologise for being the cause of any angst for you today. At least it created the base for a very good post from you.
I also think if you manage to stir up emotional whilst writing, you are at least writing well and a response (even if opinionated *read rude*) can in some light be seen as better than a ‘meh’.
I promise my bark is worse than my bite, but I really must learn to muzzle.
Not at all – and no need for an apology. You made me think and inspired me to write this post, so thank you! Again, my original post wasn’t intended to be snarky at all, but you’ve given me a good reminder that different people will always interpret things in different ways. Thank you for letting me include your tweet in this post. x
I briefly worried about it. But you can’t. You just can’t.
I used to laugh at my ex-husband because I could say “Darling, where are the apples?” and somewhere between my mouth and his ears the words would magically be transformed into, “You idiot, you threw out the apples, I hate you.” What he heard and what I said bore no relation to one another, at all.
Blogging is even worse. I’ve written posts where I’ve trod on eggshells and tried to anticipate every possible objection and address it, and someone will STILL find something to be offended by.
Yes, part of it is about body language and tone, and part of it is that it’s human nature for most people to look for reason to be upset more than they look for reason to be happy.
As bloggers there’s nothing you can do BUT you should accept that with blogging, you’re putting yourself ‘out there’ – people will read, and form opinions, and judge, and may sometimes totally misconstrue your words. I think you need to make a judgement call and only write about things where you know you won’t mind that happens. I know in my life there are issues and situations where I’d be devastated if someone didn’t agree with me, or my explanations – so I don’t write about them on my blog. It’s what my diary is for
Wise advice, as ever Sally. I have the same rule – there are boundaries about what I’d be happy to write about here or in an commissioned article, or talk about on the radio, because those are things that I know I’d be really upset if people interpreted in a different way to me. That said, I don’t think you can get too bogged down in self analysis because (as you rightly say) there’ll always be someone who doesn’t agree or who interprets your tone in a different way.
The phrase “perception is reality” is completely hammered into us at work because I work in IT service management and how we present, come across and write are all taken as gospel. So I’m very careful about how i come across professionally. I’m pretty sure I even have a “work persona” (all me, just probably slightly more aware of myself than in real life). On my blog I tend to be a hit and run kind of blogger. I tend to write how I feel at the time without thinking it through. I’ve hesitated a couple of times with hard posts but then thought stuff it and done it anyway (although I’m not v controversial in my blog I have to say!). I think what I’m trying to say is that I’ve never considered it on my blog that much and even though I think you should be aware of how people may react you shouldn’t let it influence you to the extent that your writing is no longer you.
That’s a really interesting phrase. I know exactly what you mean – if you’re writing a personal blog and you start self censoring TOO much you’ll risk losing the realness and authenticity of your words. For me, I always think that as long as I’m true to myself and write what I mean to write (rather than trying to please others etc) then if people don’t agree or interpret what I’m saying in a different way well… that’s OK.
Strange that I should read this today on the first day that I had cause to consider this very thing. I had my first comment questioning a careless phrase I had used. It reminded me that our words have the power to insult, offend or injure. I wondered if I should steer clear of controversial territory but decided, on balance, that I wanted a degree of freedom from self-censorship.
As long as we can all be respectful, difference of opinion and open discussion is a necessary process of growth and progress.
Thank you for a most thoughtful post.
Words are indeed powerful. More powerful than we often realise I think.
The Fool said:
I guess this is why we end up using so many smiley faces in tweets, oh so easy for the intended tone to be lost. Don’t really want to fill blog posts with smiley faces though so I guess you just have to take the risk and hope that if someone does take it the wrong way you have the chance to correct them.
Gosh – can you imagine? My mum would KILL me if I started adding emoticons to all my posts!
Really good post. I sometimes wish my blog was the kind of space I could be more outspoken, but it wouldn’t work for the blog, so I’m not. When I start writing more about me and less about the children that may change. But for me it’s always going to be more important to write what I really feel than what I think others want to read.
Sounds like a good ethos to have!
IMHO it doesn’t matter what you say or who you say it to, there will always be someone that doesn’t like it or doesn’t agree. I do appreciate the fact that many of the people I know and admire are able to have a discussion about a difference of opinion and find common ground.
Some good points made in your post (and people’s comments).
One person commented that they lost a friend , I’ve recently lost a family member (of course there were other issues) due to them reading an email and taking a completely different meaning from it than what I meant.
And as my partner said, if somebody is reading something in a certain way they will keep doing so. Something in black n white is permanent and can never be taken back (even if it shldnt have to be)
I’ve learnt never to do any really important, personal correspondence via the written word!
Great post! So true!
I’ve suffered for my words too – many times. I’m brave enough to write about controversial subjects and popular subjects such as sleep training and breastfeeding and get myself into a whole hero of trouble because the words are coming out of the screen with no voice, no tone, no empathy or sympathy – just as they are!
I’d not sorry too much Molly. Like Nickie says, no matter what you write there’ll always be someone upset or disagreeing with what you’ve written. But then that’s a good thing right? If we all agreed with each other what a very boring world it would be.
This is a very insightful post. Words are incredibly powerful, they have the ability to build up but also tear down….I have a half-scribbled post about this in my notes! Words can also be totally misconstrued (is that how you spell it?). With a blog, I think you need to be doubly carefuly and I’ve also had to speak to my daughter about this with her text messages!
anna tims (@ageingmatron) said:
I’m certain that most of the Twitter spats that flare up are caused by the inevitable lack of nuance and inflection. I admire you for handling this so gracefully for criticism is always unpalatable and many cyber folk are intemperate in their responses.