What do you mean by that?
Recently an old friend and I met for a light breakfast early one morning in a local restaurant. When we sat down with our hot mugs, he told me, “My wife said everything will be fine as long as we don’t have coffee until ten o’clock.”
I said, “But we’re having coffee now.”
He said, “What are you talking about?”
“You just said she doesn’t want you having coffee until sometime after ten o’clock. I thought you maybe shouldn’t have caffeine right after taking some medicine or other.”
“No. I said she doesn’t want us hanging around here arguing politics from now until mid-morning. She’s got chores for me to do. Anyway, that’s what I meant.”
Have you ever tried to assemble a rather complicated new purchase with only an instruction pamphlet written in some obscure dialect faintly resembling English by somebody who obviously doesn’t know a Phillips screwdriver from a swizzle stick? “Next put big end careful forward into side part (if having model A maybe B but not model C-2) and fasten two three small clip very strongest, please.” For their own safety, it’s a good thing such writers remain anonymous.
Or have you ever tried to immerse yourself in a novel only to find it necessary to repeatedly leaf back a number of pages to get straight what the devil is supposed to be going on? Was it Tom or Harry who shot the gardener imposter back in 1912 for treading on the petunias? Is it Maude or Mary who’s pregnant? And who’s the daddy? Just how many friends and relatives can Jason possibly have, and which one of them is the rich personal-injury lawyer again? Did it mention somewhere back there who is having the affair with the mayor, or is that supposed to be a plot secret? Did I really pay fifteen bucks plus tax for this book?
I began the back-cover blurb for one of my books thusly: “In 1858, soldiers came with bayonets to . . . “ I was only trying to establish the background for a story that takes place entirely in current times. But of course I witnessed the inevitable occurring during several book signings. A passing potential buyer looking for a contemporary thriller would pause, glance at that beginning phrase, and understandably assume the book to be an historical novel. And I’d find myself hastily trying to explain away what, after all, had been my own glaring mistake.
The first obligation for any writer of anything is clarity. It’s not always easy. We know what we mean to say and can’t imagine a reader taking it any other way. But a good rule to follow is if a phrase or sentence can remotely be interpreted in more than one way, you can safely wager it will be. (We even require an expensive be-robed Supreme Court, for example, to clarify for us whether legal issues are or are not constitutional.)
Rearrange or reconstruct any suspect sentence or phrase until it’s clear.
It’s never the fault of the reader when misinterpretation occurs. And it can cost the writer dearly.