Reading · Writing

That’s Not What I Meant: Writer Intent vs Reader Interpretation

My second semester of sophomore high school English, I had a teacher that loved to analyze the crap out of everything we read. I’ve talked before about sometimes feeling too stupid to understand literary fiction; I wouldn’t be surprised if that course started me down that path. Of course, I went on to pursue an English degree in college anyhow, but given the fact that I can never come up with the right literary references to help me out on things like writing blog posts, I suppose that isn’t a resounding endorsement.

That HS English teacher probably felt like she was teaching us to understand the true theme and message in the books we read, but a little bit then and a lot a bit now, I wonder if this is even possible. Can we really divine the master plan of authors? What is more, does it matter if we can?

My husband and I like to debate this question from time to time. He lands on the “yes, it matters” side. To exaggerate slightly (or a lot, I’ll let him decide), he considers it a failure (of sorts) by the author if readers do not “get” what s/he intended when writing the novel.

I disagree. The best part of reading is when you can connect with the story, the characters, or any combination of those two. If you can come away from a novel and feel that you have gotten something out of it — whether it be joy, growth, knowledge, compassion, understanding, curiosity, meditation, or whatever — then that book was a success. If I come away from a novel that meant one thing to me, but quite another to a different reader, I lean towards believing that the novel is even better because it now has layers that I may not have even known existed.

Author John Green, my idol, my secret fangirly writer-crush, an author I admire and respect, says this: “The book does not exist for the benefit of the author; the book exists for the benefit of you [the reader]” Sure, some may write for themselves, but if you are writing to publish, then why you originally wrote the story no longer matters. It is now out in the world, where you no longer have control over it.

One argument might be that if no one catches the message you were intending, then perhaps you have not effectively connected with your readers, that what you have crafted falls short of the mark. I suppose I can see this possibility – but ultimately that is a personal issue vs an at-large reader one, isn’t it?

One of my students wrote this in a recent essay:

There is a meaning behind everything. Just an example, take the Soundgarden song “Taree” for example:

“Taree walk out and raise the road

To my tilted shadow

I only know I’ve made it home

When I drown

In your ghost light”

You can pick through this song, and get a thousand meanings out of just this slice of the song. Is it about the loss of a loved one? A heartbroken soul? No, it’s about a side of a mountain that overlooks Puget Sound that had a “Hollywood” style sign overgrown in vines. But Ben Shepherd, the writer was able to put such a spin on his writing, that it paints a vivid image in your head, even if it was inspired by something as simple as a sign. That shows true writing prowess.

There are a lot of music lyrics out there that probably don’t mean anything at all like we think they mean. Recently I posted Pink’s song “Try” and commented on how I didn’t necessarily like the message in the original music video. The lyrics in that song speak to me differently than what she might have been thinking as she wrote the song. I’m glad, actually. Sometimes I don’t want something that means a lot to me for one reason or another to be ruined by authorial intent. In fact, I don’t want to know if William Golding really did write in 56 different symbols within his Lord of the Flies novel like my sophomore English teacher thought because seriously, if he did, then I’m suddenly thinking he wrote a textbook and not a novel and that is just not nearly as cool.

As a writer who hopes that her own novels will be out in the world, I am not bothered a bit if all that I may have intended in my stories does not reach everyone. Just having my first novel out to various beta readers gave me all kinds of joy at what parts especially resonated with each of them. They weren’t all the same parts. I loved this. I write because I love it, but ultimately it is because I hope you will love it, too.

UPDATE: A colleague just posted this goodie from a while back – revised Dr. Seuss titles to reveal subtext. Are these his hidden messages that kids just aren’t getting? Haha!

What do you think? How difficult is it for you if readers don’t “get” what you intended? What if you talked to an author of your favorite novel and found out that his/her purpose or message was not at all what you got out of it? Would that affect your connection with the story? Sound off with these or any other comments you might have!

Here is a song that might fall into “does this match at all with my interpretation?” category. I remember seeing my friend, Jenn, talk of how she saw Fun.’s video of “Some Nights” and thinking “huh”. (Not really a direct quote.) Me too, but guess what? I’m totally cool with that.

5 thoughts on “That’s Not What I Meant: Writer Intent vs Reader Interpretation

  1. I was recently discussing this very thing with a colleague. We had both attended a talk by Shaun Tan. He said authors need to leave a gap in their final creation. A space in which the reader can make himself a part of your creation. Fiction can ask the questions that lead a reader down the path of finding him or herself. Nice thoughtful post. Thanks.


    1. Allowing the reader to become a part of the creation – I love this. If my emotional state after reading some books is any indication, there are some authors who do this exceptionally.


  2. I found this blog after dealing with someone close to me who appears to not be very encouraging in my first attempt at writing a novel. She has not read the novel, but I did give her the introduction.

    First, I have learned there is a certain contempt you may, and I say may, experience from those that know you, and read your work. This of course is more about projection then it is about the quality of your work. Leaving interpretation up for those who know you, or think they know you, until they read your work should be handled with caution and a sense of humor. I have found a truly lack of tact and professionalism from those who know me in how they communicate their thoughts on my work, which goes beyond this first novel.

    Secondly, writer’s don’t chase after approval. Writer’s write what comes out of them at the moment regarding the context of what they are trying to achieve. In this process, you don’t question whether people will approve of your work or not. Now, I used the word “approve” for a reason. There is a difference between approve and just “like”, as the word of choice in referring to a novel. Yes you want your readers to like your work. Like is a by-product of the things they relate with in the story. Psychologically people are looking for things to connect with but also things they don’t like, instead of allowing the work to stand on its own. People don’t do that, they want to provide approval of your work and that’s not the objective, nor is it fair. This is another way to describe your point.

    Lastly, the bigger picture is to understand that your audience, or whomever may read your material, are at a certain place in their lives where they can interpret something only to a certain degree of truth. The readers job is not to critique, but understand the writer’s intent. Most never really pay much attention to this notion because we are such a critical and fickle society. Readers often think of opening the book with the notion of, “I dare you to entertain me with the notion of what I thought you would.” Huh? The notion of what I thought you would? Yes, they do essentially have preconceived ideas by word of mouth, reviews, your cover, your title, etc., of what the story should be. Once that kicks in, and its always to a degree of course, depending on where the person is at in life, and their general attitude, you are sunk, because you just can’t win under that umbrella.

    These things make it awfully hard to win with anybody. However if you instill creativity in your concept, your characters are rich and have this sensibility where a reader wishes to follow them, and your story has a tone which reflects a wide audience, you are starting out on a good note.

    I hope this helps. I know writing this out, and reading your thoughts did for me.



    1. “… your audience, or whomever may read your material, are at a certain place in their lives where they can interpret something only to a certain degree of truth” < — Absolutely – which could indeed mean they can't stand something while another loved it. I know I have read books like that, and it may have had everything to do with my age and experiences at the time.

      I'm so glad you stopped by and offered your perspective! Also, I wish you luck in putting your faith in those who believe in what you are trying to do and know that sometimes those who don't believe in you might really just be scared for you. Writing involves a lot of emotion and potential rejection and criticism; sometimes those who are close to you want to limit your exposure. Many people say "write the story you are meant to tell that only you can" – I agree with them.


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