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Friday, May 11, 2012

A Conflict of Inference

Lately, my favorite saying has been:
The curse of authorship is that the information conveyed is not necessarily what the writer intended, but rather what the reader chooses to infer.
As someone who attempts to write, both for fun on this blog and the technical, management, and business documents as part of my work, I'm often flummoxed and bemused by the apparent lack of clarity in my writing when a reader ends up inferring meaning that not only didn't I intend, but would've never guessed in a million years that's how they would interpret what I had written.

The only thing that keeps me from feeling totally humiliated by my inability to write clearly is that it happens to real authors as well.  I recommended  Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions" to a friend and when he wrote a summary/critique of what he had read, I was wondering if he had read a different "A Conflict of Visions" than I did.  It turns out it was the same book, but we had just interpreted it completely differently.

Poor Sowell, either my friend or I or both have completely misinterpreted his work.  But that's the curse of authorship.


erp said...

Also the curse of inbred prejudices especially against non-conformist ideas and even more especially when those ideas are in a black person's head.

Hey Skipper said...

I suggest strongly resisting the temptation to analogize.

Rarely, there are times when the analogy will simplify and clarify the point at hand, while not introducing inconsistencies that either undermine the whole effort.

Bree-Z said...

What you have found is not a down fall, or lack of skill. It's a simple truth that humanity hears and sees what they would like. I don't mean that as a negativity toward humanity, but merely as a stated truth. The very beauty of words, and creation in general is that it is interpreted differently by each human being. There is hardly a way to insure that your exact meaning is identified in every piece without some explanation. We all see things differently because no two people have ever lived the same life. Combinations of different words have differing meaning to ever human being. Just as a painting might amaze one person, and be found disturbing to the next.

Just my opinion.

Bret said...


Those are good points and certainly part of the beauty of some sorts of creations is that each person can interpret and enjoy the creation in his or her own way.

On the other hand, I nevertheless find it frustrating when some of my creations aren't received in the manner I intend and I imagine that at least some other authors feel similar frustration. When I write a song it doesn't bother me how it's interpreted. But if I wrote a treatise on how 2 + 2 equals 4 and someone infers from what I wrote that I meant that 2 + 2 equals 5, that would hurt. Mostly, because I would assume that it was a severe lack of clarity in my writing that caused the incorrect interpretation.

The Sowell book I mentioned is somewhere in between a poem or a song and a hard description of objective reality, so there is definitely room for subjective interpretation. I was just surprised at how wide a range of interpretation was possible. I wonder if he would be surprised as well.