When the audience misinterprets our work

Reflections on bad interpretations.

I’ve seen writers argue with their audience. They’ll read negative reviews and then fight with the reader that they didn’t understand the work.

For the longest time, I never understood this approach. It felt like pride was getting in the way.

But then I’ve heard of creators whose work gets misinterpreted and used for horrible ideological acts or accused of being the reason for them.

I’d find this very distressing. Assuming you’re trying to put something positive into this world, you’d never want to see your creativity weaponized for something you disagree with.

Yet, despite all our protests, I still don’t know if there’s anything that can be done. Once the work leaves our hands, we can no longer control it. We can fight all we want, but the audience will interpret it however they want.

What often happens—and could work for both examples—is to clarify things on the next creation. Take the lessons learned and improve. Clarify things better for those in the back row that may misinterpret it. Plug the holes and batten down the hatches.

But it still may not help. Some people will still misread it because they don’t understand it, didn’t pay attention, or didn’t even try it in the first place.

Ultimately, our goal has to be about doing our best work, being generous and sharing it, and accepting that not everyone will get it.

One final piece of advice I learned from Seth Godin: say thank you.

If someone reads your writing but hates or misinterprets it, be grateful that they still tried (well, maybe not for those who weaponize it).

Your writing won’t be for everyone. Not everyone will get the joke (another Seth Godin phrase I like), and that’s okay. If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll appeal to no one.

Then move on. Don’t argue and don’t defend. Continue doing creative work and making it the best, most generous work possible.