When it gets down to the nitty gritty, writing is about communication. We, the writers, almost always want to reach readers, and then a slightly smaller percentage of us are intensely interested in the feedback.
But communication isn’t a simple process; if it were, we wouldn’t need the zillions of books and lectures and classes that we get from a tender age in how to communicate.
At the most basic level, communication breaks down into four parts: sender, encoding, decoding, receiver.
When we say sender, we’re mostly concerned on this blog with the writer. What can go wrong with this part? Writer’s block, no ideas. What can we do about it? We can feed our writerly selves with good information (reading, art, experiences, conversation). We can make sure we’re in writing shape (sleep, food, shelter while writing). And we can give ourselves the gift of scheduling to make sure we can sit down and write regularly.
The huge bug-a-boo that we all worry about here is the encoding. How do you put your ideas onto a medium (aka channel) that will convey your ideas to a sender? We are taught this practically from the time we emerge from the womb. Our first caretakers teach us about eye contact and comfort, we go on to more formal education with boardbooks, songs and children’s TV shows, and continue through formal and informal methods to educate ourselves about what works, and what doesn’t.
Not so much attention is paid to the third part: decoding. After all, there’s not much you can do about how people read your work . . . or is there? Careful study of people’s reactions to your work (and others), as well as noting carefully your own reactions when you are decoding other people’s works will help inform your own encoding.
Beta readers and other forms of feedback can be extremely helpful here – or they can destroy your confidence and motivation entirely. It’s important to accept that you can’t really affect how people decode work (well, unless you actually teach decoding – but then, good luck finding time to write!). It’s also important to realize that different people decode in different ways. Just because one person can’t decode the medium you’ve worked so hard on doesn’t mean that everyone will be unable to encode. So, a good rule of thumb is: once is something to note and think about. Twice means you need to pay extra-special attention. And three times may mean it’s time for a real change.
Rules of thumb are notorious for having fistfuls of exceptions.
Finally, we reach the receiver. What does their brain do when they decode your information? Their own experiences and opinions will shape their reaction to your story. And again, there’s nothing you can do about that, unless you are willing to go to every reader and give them an experience that will shape them so they are receptive to your message. (See: Decoding: Good luck finding time to write!)
The medium/channel carries that information, and as writers, we are lucky in that we aren’t that particular about who the decoding recipient is (unlike lovers, where we want to make sure messages delivered are received by that certain someone). Lately, on the blog, we’ve been very concerned about self-publishing as part of our medium/channel. It’s got a lot of advantages for us as senders and encoders; the decoding part is fairly standard, I think. The huge problem is making sure it gets to the right receivers, whether our audience is mainstream or quite niche.
I don’t know why this has been in my brain lately, but it has, and it affects everything – my day job, my friendships, my family and my writing. Sender, encoding, decoding, receiver. They all have to work well enough to allow a communication to take place.
And without communication, what are we? Lonely lumps of carbon, waiting for death. Communication is everything.