Watch Those Assumptions
Hey! It’s Wednesday (first Wednesday) again. That means it’s time for another post for Insecure Writers. I assume that everyone has been waiting excitedly for this? No? Well, that just goes to prove that it’s dangerous to make assumptions, which is the subject of this month’s post – so there.
In the 1970s, when I was in the army and assigned to South Korea, I taught English at night to Koreans who thought my language was far more complicated than the inverted grammar they employ to communicate. That’s neither here nor there really – both languages are hellish for non-native speakers to learn. What that experience reminds me of is the importance of not making the assumption that just because you understand something, everyone around you will also understand it.
I used to begin each term by writing ‘ghoti’ on the chalkboard, and asking the students to pronounce it. I got response like, ‘goatee’, ‘got-tee’, and ‘go-tie,’ and then gape-mouthed astonishment when I informed them that ‘ghoti’ was pronounced ‘fish.’ I then explained that if one took the final sound in ‘enough’, where the ‘gh’ is pronounced as if it was ‘f’, the first ‘o’ in ‘women’, which comes out as a short ‘i’, and the ‘ti’ sound in ‘nation’, which sounds like ‘sh,’ you end up with ‘ghoti’ spelling ‘fish.’ Now, there is no such word, of course, but I used it to make the point that you can’t assume the sound of a word in English by merely looking at it.
And, that brings me to the point of this article. When you’re writing, never assume that just because you understand a passage you’ve written, your readers will share that understanding. Not, mind you, that you should insult their intelligence by explaining every new thing patiently as if to a child, but that you should make sure that you’ve put enough verbal clues in your writing to allow the reader to experience that ‘ah ha!’ moment of, ‘so that’s what that means.’
I’ll give you an example: In my Al Pennyback mystery series, the main character has the ability to tell when people are lying. He uses clues of body language and facial expression. Many people are familiar with the body language of their own culture – moms and school teachers, for instance, seem to be able to tell from body language when you’re about to tell a lie – but many are clueless. I don’t want to alienate any readers, so when I come to a passage involving this talent, I slow down and think about every word I write. Here’s a brief example:
As he answered my question, he avoided making eye contact, and I noticed a twitch under his right eye. I knew then that he was lying.
People familiar with body language and expressions will recognize the averted eyes and nervous tic as possible signs of evasion, and those for whom it’s unfamiliar will make the connection. It becomes a bit trickier when the characters I’m writing about come from a different culture, as in the following example:
“Did you kill her?” I asked.
He wouldn’t look me in the eye. “No,” he said quietly. “I did not.”
If he’d been anyone else I would have pegged him for a liar. But, the Korean gardener came from a culture where it was rude to look directly into someone’s eyes. Trying to read him was like trying to get meaning from a blank page.
So, there you have it. No assumptions about what a reader knows or doesn’t know. I make an effort to explain, through character action or speech, anything that happens in my story. You should too. Remember the old saying, to ‘assume’ makes an a– out of you (u) and me.