The Writer Is Always at Fault

A few months back, I wrote an article for another publication that sent my e-mail inbox into spasms. The point of the article was that everyone complains about illegal immigration, but few seem willing to endorse real solutions.

I said that if people were really serious about stopping the tidal wave of illegal immigrants, there are many ways it could be accomplished. I then offered a number of rather harsh (by today’s touchy-feely standards) solutions that could be implemented, and followed each of them with this tongue-in-cheek afterthought:

“Of course, I myself would never favor such a heartless measure, but one would think that those who demand a solution to the illegal-immigration problem would endorse it with open arms… if they were really serious about it.”

I thought it was a clever touch of sarcasm that my readers would enjoy. That said, below is a small sampling of excerpts from reader e-mails that will give you a pretty good idea of just how much they DIDN’T enjoy it.

“Prior to this article, I thought that you had some intelligence. This article proved that you have NONE.” – Bob

“Hey, a__hole. If you like Mexicans so much, and think importing thieves, murderers, drug smugglers, and child molesters is a good idea, then I hope your family is destroyed by an illegal rapist, molester, or perhaps a drunk Mexican driver. … I hope you and your ilk burn in hell.” – James

“Sir, you are an idiot.” – R.R.

“May your illegal-alien-staffed endeavors be damned!” – Mad As Hell Momma

“I’ve been an avid reader of yours… until this column.” – Mike

“If you love having a lower class of slave labor, move to Mexico where they live that way every day. … Please leave your passport at the door as you depart.” – M.E.B.

“Too bad you don’t know sh__ about the real world. … You have zero credibility with [those of] us that live in the USA of today. … Enjoy your cheap lettuce.” – Scott

“Boy, you sure had me fooled. Some of your previous articles had led me to believe you had good sense. … What a splendid example of shallow thought.” – B.J.H.

“I do not want to ‘press 2 for Espanol.’ I do not want a Mexican or a Hispanic caucus in Congress. I do not want my heritage belittled in the name of Hispanics, Muslims, or any other non-American group. … [the] hell with tolerance and diversity. … How do you fail to see the truth?” – W. S.

“Sorry guy, but you’re full of it. You’re just another apologist for the illegals.” – J.S.

It’s obvious that a lot of readers failed to pick up on my tongue-in-cheek handling of this lightning-rod issue and, thus, completely missed my point.

So what did I learn from this torrent of e-mails? Plenty. One of my most important writing rules is: If even one reader misinterprets my words, it’s my fault. What that one reader is telling me is that I have not made my case clearly enough. It’s not the reader’s obligation to figure out what I’m trying to say. Writing effectively means writing in a way that every reader will clearly understand.

Even if you’re not a professional writer, you should follow this rule when writing letters, e-mails, advertisements, agreements, or just about anything else. Unfortunately, the modern-day overuse of e-mail has made people even worse writers than they used to be – and most people have always been pretty bad writers to begin with.

There’s no question that e-mail is a marvelous tool, but not when the messages you receive are so sloppy that, rather than trying to decipher them, it’s easier and much quicker to simply call the sender and discuss the subject over the phone.

You should make a conscious effort not to fill your e-mails with unidentifiable flying pronouns, third-grade grammar, and lazy or nonexistent punctuation. If the recipient doesn’t understand what you’re saying, you’re wasting both his time and yours.

But perhaps the best lesson I learned (make that relearned) was from the many apologies I received from readers. Those apologies resulted from my sending out an explanatory e-mail to those who had lambasted me because they missed my attempt at humor in the article. In particular, consider the following four excerpts:

“Boy am I embarrassed! I admit I just skimmed the article. Sorry!” – J.S.

I should have listened to my instincts and taken more time to analyze your message.” – J.M.

“If you’re going to do satire, sarcasm, parody, or tongue-in-cheek, there has to be some sort of clue for us clueless types out here in the hinterlands. … Sorry for the confusion.” – M.M.

I looked hard for sarcasm and did not think I was finding it. … I humbly apologize for my rude language. You have shown your class with your polite reply.” – K.S.

Take the two comments “I admit I just skimmed the article” and “I should have… taken more time to analyze your message.” Remember these comments when you write – especially when writing ad copy. Readers normally don’t take the time to carefully dissect what you have written. They skim. And if they skim, they can easily misinterpret your words.

And how about “there has to be some sort of clue for us clueless types” and “I looked hard for sarcasm and did not think I was finding it“? In other words, you can’t assume your reader is in sync with you. He’s not in your head. And because he has other things on his mind, it’s presumptuous to believe that he should know when you’re being facetious… unless you give him a clear signal.

Also, don’t make facetious statements that are so subtle a person has to be a well-informed “insider” to catch them. Readers hate feeling like they’re on the outside looking in. This is especially true when writing ad copy. You don’t just throw it out there and count on the reader to figure it out.

Lead your reader by the hand, word by word – straight to the sale. Writing effectively increases sales. I’m always amazed at ads that are filled with statements I either don’t understand or have to think about for a while in order to figure out what the copywriter was trying to say.

The bottom line is that whether it’s an article, ad, letter, e-mail, or any other kind of written document, you should always keep in mind that the person on the receiving end is not going to be intently focused on what you’re trying to say – and write accordingly.

[Ed. Note: Becoming a better, clearer writer is critical to your personal and business success. But even more important, becoming a strong writer can help you attract customers and make sales.

For a treasure chest of proven ideas, strategies, and techniques for increasing your income many times over, check out Robert Ringer’s best-selling dealmaking audio series. And be sure to sign up for his Voice of Sanity e-letter.]

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is a New York Times #1 bestselling author and host of the highly acclaimed Liberty Education Interview Series, which features interviews with top political, economic, and social leaders. He has appeared on Fox News, Fox Business, The Tonight Show, Today, The Dennis Miller Show, Good Morning America, The Lars Larson Show, ABC Nightline, and The Charlie Rose Show, and has been the subject of feature articles in such major publications as Time, People, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Barron's, and The New York Times.