Monday Motivation: The little miracle that enables readers to read what writers have written
I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between readers and writers; and by the implicit contract entered into between a reader and the book – and hence the writer of that book – when he takes it down from a shelf, or opens his Kindle, and begins reading.
But consider the hurdles that lie in the way of that relationship.
Firstly, we’re all aware, as writers, that writing is hard. Speech might be instinctive, of course. We’re not sent, as toddlers, to talking school. We don’t have to be taught the rudiments of articulation, or a basic vocabulary.
For the first few years of our lives we learn, without effort, to recognise and repeat dozens of words a day, every day. Once we’ve picked up the trick of associating “Mama” with the goddess who dominates every moment of our existence, the rest is easy and before we know it, we’re spouting existential philosophy with the best of them.
But writing? That’s a different matter. It’s hard. First we have to learn how to translate the words we hear and speak into squiggles on a page. That takes years – and not everyone succeeds. Of course, this process is as difficult for readers as it is for writers. Readers have to interpret those squiggles. Many never manage it. Check the statistics tracking the failure of so many high school graduates around the world who remain functionally illiterate.
And then consider this: when we write, we’re writing for readers who are, perforce, creatures of our imagination. Of course, once our writing has been published, in one form or another, our readers assume flesh and blood and will, if we’re lucky, respond to our writing with either bouquets or brickbats.
But before then, we’re writing for an invisible, ultimately unknowable audience. They can’t interrupt our writing and ask for clarification or elaboration. (“In this context, what does is mean?”) We have to imagine how they’ll interpret our composition, we have to anticipate problems of comprehension, and adjust the writing accordingly.
So writing is something that has to be learned. And relearned. It’s a craft as complicated as brain surgery – perhaps more so. The consequences of getting it wrong might not be as grave as they would be for a surgeon who inadvertently nicks one of the carotid arteries – but when it comes to sheer complexity, there’s nothing quite as daunting as language.
But mirroring these difficulties of the writer, are the difficulties of the reader.* I’m no linguist, but I’ve dipped my toes in the turgid waters of linguistic theory and can testify that the technical challenges of teaching children to read are formidable.
So, we can conclude that the fact that so many books, written by writers who’ve mastered their art only after a long and arduous apprenticeship, are read by readers who’ve elbowed or bludgeoned their way to linguistic competence is something of a miracle.
Something, indeed, to be celebrated.
Happy writing (and reading),
* This goes not only for consumers of literary masterpieces – but for writers (and readers) of business communications. Arguably, it’s more important to interpret a critical email than it is to understand every nuance in Joyce’s Ulysses. And it just so happens that All About Writing, in collaboration with Africa’s leading business school, GIBS, offers a masterclass on the subject of business writing. Check it out here.