Impossible to misunderstand

“The goal is not to be possible to understand, but impossible to misunderstand.”

I saw this quote at the beginning of a math book when I was a student and it stuck with me. I would think of it when grading exams. Students often assume it is enough to be possible to understand, possible for an infinitely patient and resourceful reader to reverse engineer the thought process behind a stream of consciousness.

The quote is an aphorism, and so not intended to be taken literally, but I’d like to take the last part literally for a moment. I think the quote would be better advice if it said “unlikely to misunderstand.” This ruins the parallelism and the aesthetics of the quote, but it gets to an important point: trying to be impossible to misunderstand leads to bad writing. It’s appropriate when writing for computers, but not when writing for people.

Trying to please too wide and too critical an audience leads to defensive, colorless writing.

You’ll never use an allusion for fear that someone won’t catch it.

You’ll never use hyperbole for fear that some hyper-literalist will object.

You’ll never leave a qualification implicit for fear that someone will pounce on it.

Social media discourages humor, at least subtle humor. If you say something subtle, you may bring a smile to 10% of your audience, and annoy 0.1%. The former are much less likely to send feedback. And if you have a large enough audience, the feedback of the annoyed 0.1% becomes voluminous.

Much has been said about social media driving people to become partisan and vicious, and certainly that happens. But not enough has been said about an opposite effect that also happens, driving people to become timid and humorless.