Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Author Says... I hear

 I Recently accompanied a group of fifth graders on their field trip to the Statue of Liberty.  While walking into the Pedestal of the impressive statue we stopped in the museum.  Depicted were many of the ways the Statue of Liberty was exploited in advertising.  We saw Lady Liberty eating hamburgers, with sun glasses advertising travel and in weird pants advertising something that I just don’t remember.
One advertisement stood out.  On it was picture of lady liberty pointing her index finger over the waters.  The caption read, “If you want to make America better, leave the country!”

The kids I was chaperoning gasped.  One of them said to me, “That is mean!”

And I agreed.  I thought they were telling immigrants to go back to their countries.  Until I read the rest of the advertisement.

It was an advertisement for the Peace Corps.  The message was, if you want to make America better, leave the country, go to developing countries to serve and come back with your new experiences to contribute to the building of America.  The message was quite the opposite of our interpretation.
Now enlightened I explained to the kid, “It’s not mean at all.  It’s just a clever way to advertise service in the Peace Corps.”

She replied, “Well they didn’t have to phrase it that way.”

So I used it as an opportunity to discuss with them about saying things that may be perceived differently to what you mean.

This is also true of writing.  Many times we writers pen words with a certain message we would like to convey.  However, sometimes those same words are interpreted differently, even in cases opposite to the message we are trying to convey.  Unfortunately it is inescapable.  However with good editing we may be able to minimize it so that we convey the message we want.

I recall a conversation I had in one of my manuscripts submitted for publishing.  In it the lead character asks a child she was babysitting if he wanted to bake cookies.  He responded that cooking was for girls after which she said she would have to have a talk with his father.  When she told his father his son was baking cookies his response was to suggest she was making a sissy out of him.  He went on to give his very strong opinion of kids making decisions about sexual orientation before they are old enough to even understand the meanings. She sarcastically warned that with that attitude he was raising a homophobic male chauvinist.   My editor called me and told me to strike that conversation.
I asked her why.  She said it could be perceived that the author is homophobic and it is best not to alienate any social group or potential readers.  I didn’t see it that way.  I thought I was being open-minded and the conversation was balanced featuring opposing opinions on the issue.  I modified it anyway.

Good editing does not mean people will not interpret what you write in their very own way.  It just means you will have a clearer message that reduces the misinterpretations.  Whether in speech or in writing there are always two interpretations to the message: the one that the writer/speaker intends to convey and the one that the reader/listener hears.


Charles Gramlich said...

Interesting. The way it was phrased sounded mean but got attention. Dramatic presentation!

Liane Spicer said...

I don't think there was any chance of readers misinterpreting the spirit of that conversation as indicative of homophobia on the part of the author. What I think is that editors are paranoid about having writers stay away from potentially volatile words and issues. I had an editor ask me to replace the verb 'rape' with 'force' in dialogue, and I suspect it's for that reason.

But I agree that sometimes readers completely misinterpret what the writer means. Especially with satire. Some people just do not get satire and irony.

Unknown said...

Yes Charles, it definitely got my attention. Unfortunately, not everyone actually read further to see what was advertised and went away with the impression that it was mean and offensive. But that is a very clever way to make one take a second look.

Unknown said...

Liane, I never thought of it like that, but you are probably right.