I recently sent a document out for review; I had designed and created it to be a series of alphabetical listings. One reviewer asked for a table of contents. I couldn’t figure that out, as A, B, C, D seemed pretty easy to navigate to me. I asked her why she thought a TOC would help, and she said, “I have been using the document and noticed that I tend to page through quite a bit before I find what I want. I don’t always know if what I am looking for is in the document at all or what it is called to know which letter to look under.”
Of course she was right! I created a table of contents mighty fast, and I also gave my dear readers an index! I was glad that I had asked for her reasons before just skipping over the request, believing my own perceptions about the document more than the readers’ perceptions.
When my grandson was totally right
This experience reminded me of a sweet memory I have of my grandson when he was 3 1/2 years old. He was making a book. He colored the first page and then said, “Grandma, we need some letters on this page. Books have letters!”
I stifled the urge to correct him (“No, honey, books have words”). To him, letters are important as that’s what he was learning then. Soon, he will understand the concept that letters make words, but for then: HE WAS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. Books have letters. So we added letters.
And thus I continue to relearn another valuable lesson: The reader is always right.
What does this mean for us as writers, readers, and editors?
What are the implications of this lesson for us as writers, readers, and editors? As writers, we need to constantly focus on our reader. Will they be able to understand our text quickly and unambiguously? And how will we know? We need to invite people to read our draft and tell us what they don’t understand (remember, they are always right if they don’t understand what we wrote). And then we need to change the text and run it by them again.
As readers, we need to articulate to the author (if we have that luxury) exactly what we don’t understand or need more information about. Such behavior is not being critical: It’s a gift to the reader, because if you don’t understand something, it’s probably very likely that other readers will have the same confusion.
As an editor, if I don’t understand something in a client’s text, I need to explain my confusion carefully and show how I would rewrite the text so that I could understand it more quickly. Of course, I am as diplomatic with them as I was with my grandson and as diplomatic as my reviewer was in pointing out her inability to use my alphabetic listing quickly.
It’s all about kindness, whether you are a writer, a reader, a grandma, or an editor.