Responsibility: The Buck Stops Here

There is a meme that has circulated around the internet for awhile. Perhaps you’ve heard it.

I am responsible for what I say.
I am not responsible for what you understand.

That’s not a statement most professional writers would make.  We are responsible for your understanding. If we are unable to convey our intent to you, we have failed in our job. Readers don’t want to pick up a book they can’t understand. (And if you are employed as a writer of corporate press releases, software documentation, or grant proposals – being understood is extremely important.)

Let’s look at an example with which many will be familiar, The Beatles’ song, “Let it Be.”

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

I suspect if you ask most listeners for the identity of “Mother Mary,” they would say, “Mary, the mother of Jesus.”

However, Paul McCartney claims the lyrics refer to his mother, Mary (Mohin) McCartney, who died when he was 14. Allegedly he dreamt of her while working on The White Album, which inspired the lyrics to this song.

Was he successful in conveying his intent? I’d suggest not.

(However, I’d also suggest his true intent with the song, as with most of his songs, was to record something his fans would enjoy. So while he might have been inspired to write the lyrics by a dream he had of his mother, he knew full well that his fans would interpret the song differently.)

Which of course is completely fine. The interpretation of a reader or listener doesn’t have to match that of the author.

This doesn’t contradict what I said above. 

For authors of fiction or poetry, it isn’t mandatory that our readers “get” the exact same meaning of our intent. But it is still our responsibility that they are emotionally moved in some manner. It is our responsibility that our words have an impact. For fiction and poetry, there are no wrong interpretations.

For authors of press releases, software documentation, grant proposals, newspaper articles, or other works of non-fiction, it is our responsibility that readers interpret what we say the way we intended. For non-fiction, there are wrong interpretations.