Discover more from Below the Surface
Dive 59: The key to communication most people forget about
Hey, it’s Alvin!
I remember reading a blog post by a movie critic. He previously wrote a review that was, itself, criticized. But he felt the criticisms missed his points. So, in his blog post, he complained about the “poor reading comprehension” of those who criticized him.
This isn’t the only time I’ve seen writers criticize critical readers for “poor reading comprehension.” And a friend of mine recently asked a question that puts this criticism into perspective:
Who is to blame if a reader doesn’t understand what’s written?
Is the writer to blame for lack of clarity?
Is the reader to blame for lack of understanding?
As an avid writer AND reader, I’d say it depends. But a writer calling out a reader for poor reading comprehension is a narrow-minded, egotistical move. Here’s why:
A Writer’s Duties
It’s my job as a writer to express my ideas as clearly as possible to my target audience. If a reader doesn’t understand what I wrote, it could be because I didn’t write clearly enough.
No one’s perfect. I will be improving my writing skills for the rest of my life. So, it annoys me when writers flippantly accuse a reader of poor reading comprehension. It’s like they have no desire to introspect at all. They’re unwilling to consider that maybe, just maybe, they could write better.
No. It must be the reader’s fault.
Maybe poor reading comprehension really is the reason the writer was misunderstood. Even so, it is still the writer’s job to express their ideas so readers understand those ideas the way the writer intended.
Is your wording ambiguous?
Did you choose analogies and metaphors that map poorly to the concepts you’re explaining?
Did you leave out the context that your intended reader may not have but needs to get the full, proper understanding of what you’re writing?
And it’s not even necessarily bad that readers have different interpretations of a written piece. I’m amazed all the time at how others have interpreted my visuals and stories in ways I never considered before. That’s the beauty of writing in public. You get to open your mind to other perspectives.
Calling out a reader on their “poor reading comprehension” is usually an egotistical dick move. One could just say, “you don’t understand.” But to specify “poor reading comprehension” is just a way to knock down the critic. And not a way to reach mutual understanding.
Reading comprehension is supposed to be learned at a young age, often in school. So, accusing someone of “poor reading comprehension” is just a snide way of implying “you’re dumb.” Or more specifically, “you’re dumber than the accuser” who understood what was written.
You have other options if a reader didn’t understand what you wrote.
An understanding Samaritan might reach out to clarify. “Hey, I get what you’re saying, but what I meant was…”
A nonchalant person might just shrug their shoulders and ignore the criticism. This is understandable, especially if only a tiny percentage of intended readers don’t understand.
This is why it helps to write with a target audience in mind. If your critics are not part of your target audience, it could be they’re missing the context your target audience is expected to have. That can lead to misunderstandings. Of course, you can suggest resources to give them context. But if the misunderstandings are expected, then there’s nothing to gripe about.
You can’t write for everybody.
Even if my intended audience misunderstands what I wrote, there’s no need to gripe about it either. My writing skills are limited. It’s going to happen. I’ll do better next time.
As a writer, it’s my job to express my ideas as clearly as I can to my intended audience. To do that, I need to think from the reader’s perspective as I write. Calling out readers for “poor reading comprehension” when they don’t understand what I wrote doesn’t help anybody.
Despite everything I just wrote, we do need to address reading comprehension.
A Reader’s Duties
Just as a writer needs to consider a reader’s perspective for understanding, a reader must also seek to understand the writer’s point of view. Otherwise, what’s the point of reading?
But too often, readers these days aren’t reading to understand. They’re reading for other reasons, especially if they’re already biased against the writer.
Author Stephen Covey shed light on this when he introduced The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the seven habits is: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Covey was talking about listening, but it’s just as true of reading. He explained that people don’t often listen to understand, they listen “autobiographically.” So, people tend to respond in 4 ways:
Evaluating: You judge and then either agree or disagree.
Probing: You ask questions from your own frame of reference.
Advising: You give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems.
Interpreting: You analyze others’ motives and behaviors based on your own experiences.
If you want to read to understand, I explore how to read critically in Dive 35.
But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you won’t understand what you read because you’re missing context. That’s not necessarily the fault of the writer. And you have two options: search for the missing context, or just move on.
When I was 13 years old, my aunt and uncle gave me a book as a birthday present. It was a non-fiction book called The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra. The systems theory Capra explored completely changed how I approached science as a subject and methodology. It was mind-blowing. And I wish more teens would read it before or while they study science.
But at the time I got the book, I couldn’t understand everything. I could have done more research, but I was busy with other things. So, I just set it down. Four years later, I studied homeostasis in biology. I thought to myself, “homeostasis? Wait, I read about that in Capra’s book!” So, I went back to the book, and what was muddy before became clear.
This is the value of re-reading a good book, especially after a few more years of life experience. You might have gained new perspectives that open the door to understanding something that confused you the last time you read about it.
A reader’s job is to understand the writer from the writer’s point of view. It’s the only way to get the most from reading.
It Takes Two to Tango
So, back to the original question:
Who is to blame if a reader doesn’t understand what’s written?
It depends. But the writer AND the reader both play a role.
Because communication has two parts: transmission and reception.
Request and response.
Speaking and listening.
Writing and reading.
If either half is missing, there’s no communication. Because communication is about two parties reaching a common understanding. That’s the key.
A piece of writing is a meeting of two minds: the writer and the reader. They both have a duty to understand the other. It takes two to tango.
I got a belt on that holds up my pants. And my pants have belt loops that hold up my belt. What is really going on down there? Who is the real hero?
- Mitch Hedberg
Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. I’d love the hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Seek to understand. And I’ll see you in the next one.