Impossible to misunderstand

“The goal is not to be possible to understand, but impossible to misunderstand.”

I saw this quote at the beginning of a math book when I was a student and it stuck with me. I would think of it when grading exams. Students often assume it is enough to be possible to understand, possible for an infinitely patient and resourceful reader to reverse engineer the thought process behind a stream of consciousness.

The quote is an aphorism, and so not intended to be taken literally, but I’d like to take the last part literally for a moment. I think the quote would be better advice if it said “unlikely to misunderstand.” This ruins the parallelism and the aesthetics of the quote, but it gets to an important point: trying to be impossible to misunderstand leads to bad writing. It’s appropriate when writing for computers, but not when writing for people.

Trying to please too wide and too critical an audience leads to defensive, colorless writing.

You’ll never use an allusion for fear that someone won’t catch it.

You’ll never use hyperbole for fear that some hyper-literalist will object.

You’ll never leave a qualification implicit for fear that someone will pounce on it.

Social media discourages humor, at least subtle humor. If you say something subtle, you may bring a smile to 10% of your audience, and annoy 0.1%. The former are much less likely to send feedback. And if you have a large enough audience, the feedback of the annoyed 0.1% becomes voluminous.

Much has been said about social media driving us to become partisan and vicious, and certainly that happens. But not enough has been said about an opposite effect that also happens, driving us to become timid and humorless.

5 thoughts on “Impossible to misunderstand

  1. Charlie Harrison

    Well said! I think your post covers so many areas that I won’t even begin to list them. Suffice to say that as a technical writer (I am an engineer after all) I have definitely fallen into the trap of trying to write for too broad an audience, and it never gets past senior review. And conversely, even worse, is when you write for too narrow an audience, because often, unless you are writing a conference or journal paper, your audience is not going to know everything you do.

    I don’t do social media, but I definitely see your point. The articles I read about the mishaps of social media users, and so-called influencers, are too many to count. Social media has given to broad a spectrum of the world population an outlet to voice opinions. If only they understood that even though everyone has a right to their own opinion, voicing it in a way that offends, or causes harm to others, is not acceptable. As a parent I can only hope to raise my children to not fall into this trap.

    All the best to you and yours! And to all the other blog followers out there!

    And to those in Canada, please enjoy the long weekend (if you get it)

  2. I’ve had my eye on that quote for some time, as a possible blog epigraph. :-) Quintilian, /Institutione Oratoria/, Book VIII, chapter 2, line 24, circa 95 CE. I’ve preferred to translate the title as “Principles of Eloquence”, but “Oratoria” does suggest it may be mainly about spoken rather than written expression.

    Quare non ut intellegere possit sed ne omnino possit non intellegere curandum.

    (Therefore take pains, not that they can understand, but that they cannot possibly misunderstand.)

  3. Great point, John.

    I deliver technical training on highly technical topics, and I’ve decided that I am willing to upset a few people in order to please, entertain and educate the masses.

    Without saying what I do or train on (I also do expert witness work like you do, John), I am willing to correct the “know it alls” in the class who come in, beating their chests, introducing themselves as if they are the smartest people in the room. When they make a comment that is wrong, objectively wrong, I will correct them in front of the class (tactfully), in order to avoid the students leaving with an incorrect assumption.

    Come end of course, review time, I get glowing reviews, except for the one guy who rates me at the low end for literally everything. Invariably, it’s the self-appointed guru, the big fish in a small pond, who got course-corrected multiple times, publicly, during the class.

    The good thing about being very successful is that you can just discard those outliers. Some peoples’ egos are bruised too easily, they’re not used to being subjected to someone with more knowledge.

  4. No! That’s a really bad interpretation, based on what I believe may be a flawed perspective.

    “Not being misunderstood” is not a measurable absolute, but is a goal, the inspiration to craft an inclusive path that still gets to the point. I think of it as a funnel that starts wide, then narrows to a point at the end. If the funnel starts too narrow, it may always be empty, excluding the entire audience. Thankfully, the limits of the page or context keep the funnel from becoming too long: You will have your audience for only a finite time, so don’t waste their attention! Wide at the front, narrow at the end, with a brisk taper between.

    This is the antidote to tunnel-vision. Encouragement to identify your full audience, then see how best to map your goals to their initial perspectives.

    It’s really about telling a story, or even a good joke. The best of both start with a premise that everyone can identify with, then take a path to a goal that only the author knows at first, but to which everyone arrives at the end.

    I remember the first time I was asked to contribute to a Bid & proposal effort, after having previously written nothing but rather dry (though succinct) technical reports. My drafts were repeatedly rejected until I finally understood I needed to tell a story to an audience that didn’t understand my technical perspective. I needed to help them understand the need for our next phase of research, without boring them to tears with excessive detail, and do so without inflated expectations or unrealistic promises.

    Basically, I needed to make them fall in love with the work I wanted to do. So I tried to explain it to my sister. She interrupted me to grab a glass of wine. Not a good sign.

    However, by the time my draft was accepted, my sister was telling others about my work with surprising depth and context. Since then I’ve always included my sister in my audience, metaphorically if not always literally.

    If she understands the need, I win.

    More to the point, I never get frustrated when my sister doesn’t understand what I’m saying. It’s totally on me to make the connection between her and my goal. And I refuse to leave her behind! I’d love her to know what I’m doing and why I love it.

    When you write to not be misunderstood, you are writing to an audience you care about, whose understanding is personally important to you. You dare not leave them behind.

    Too much technical writing is devoid of that kind of love. Yet if you read best-paper winners, what sets them apart isn’t just the amazing research, but the inclusive passion and explanatory patience. An adventure story with equations and proofs.

    Personally, I get a bit teary watching “Dance Your PhD” entries. The art of drama revealing the art of science.

    It’s not merely “selling” the audience on your perspective, but to gain allies and supporters who genuinely share your goals.

    Who would want to write any other way?

  5. Good write-up, John. I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quote: “I am but too conscious of the fact that we are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood.”

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