Michaeline: #ThatDress: Or how we see light and words

White dress with lavender scarf . . . right? (Or is it a gray dress with a pink scarf? Or a blue dress with purple scarf? Or . . . ?) Via Wikimedia Commons

White dress with lavender scarf . . . right? (Or is it a gray dress with a pink scarf? Or a blue dress with purple scarf? Or . . . ?) Via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s blog post is a result of a smash-up of some critique work I’ve been doing this month, and The Dress controversy that I stumbled upon on Twitter yesterday.

If you haven’t heard, somebody posted a picture of a dress. Some people saw it as blue and black, others saw it as white and gold, and it seems like only a few people saw it like I did: pale blue with a tawdry sort of brown lace trimming. Argument ensued — passionate argument where all parties thought they were right, and were befuddled that others didn’t see things their way. This article on io9 sums up the controversy quite well, I think. (-: They also provide the “right” answer.

But this blogpost isn’t about the “right” answer – it’s about what people saw. Our brains use certain tricks to “see” reality in a way that’s helpful. But when conditions are right, we don’t see reality, we see (or otherwise sense) an illusion that feels absolutely right. One of the most stunning examples of this for me is the Einstein face mask on a QI episode. Human faces are extremely important for us humans, and we see faces protruding into reality even when the face is not protruding, but recessed. Absolutely amazing, and the video blew my mind as much as it blew the minds of the contestants on QI.

When looking at that dress, some people instinctively gave more importance to some clues, and therefore saw a white dress with gold trim. Others gave more importance to other visual clues, and saw a blue dress with black trim. A rare few saw the white dress with gold trim, then after reading the article or post, went back and saw, with equal certainty, a blue dress with black trim, and some were quite disturbed that their grip on “reality” (however they defined it) was not as firm as they thought it was.

The same thing happens when we are reading. Two people can read the exact same sentence, and come away with two different interpretations. There’s a really old joke where someone sends a telegram saying, “I SHOULD APOLOGIZE TO YOU STOP YOU WERE RIGHT AND I WAS WRONG STOP” On the surface, it seems straightforward, but an advisor to the letter-receiver points out that the sender is [insert guilt-inducing stereotype here], and it should read, “I should apologize to you? You were right and I was wrong?” The italics lend a certain air of put-upon martyrdom and sarcasm, instead of humble apology. The advisor was looking at the letter in a certain light.

I think this is very important to remember when we read comments from our betas and critique partners. The important thing isn’t what *is* right, it’s what the readers perceive as right. A reader may interpret things very differently from the way we intended. Maybe the reader is wrong. But maybe the reader is reading it the way many other readers would read it, too.

If one critique partner points out a flawed sentence, or displays a basic misunderstanding, it’s worth thinking about. It may be the flub of a moment, or it may signify a deeper problem. You, the writer, can decide. But if two or more stumble upon the same segment, something needs to be rewritten. Those comments give us a chance to shed our own filters for a minute, and see what we’ve written in a different light.

You can’t really argue with what people see. But you can be grateful for the chance to see through their eyes for a minute or two.

Blue dress. White dress. Bad lighting. Time to change the filter.

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