It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it…

You’ve heard that before haven’t you?  It wasn’t what you said, it was how you said it.  You’ve probably felt that sentiment as an audience member as well.

What does that mean?  Why does it matter?  At times, we fail to recognize that intent and interpretation are different dynamics.  We believe that if our intention is known to us, the message will be received in kind.  And we are mystified when someone’s interpretation of what we have said is far afield from that intent.  It is prudent for the speaker (writer) to realize that while our fundamental responsibility is our intention, we need to also account for  interpretation in order to share our message in a positive way to a greater audience.  You could describe it as conditioning the soil before sowing the seed to give the plant every advantage for growth and bloom.

When the discourse is a live exchange (speaking and listening), many factors go into this that are non-verbal.   Those can include our body language, gestures, inflections of tone, and cadence of speech to name a few.  It can also be our use of verbal short-hand or specific word choice.  This is also the case in written exchanges with a distinct difference.  The speaker can “read the audience” on the spot and adjust.  The writer does not have that luxury.  That means that we need a mechanism to anticipate and address these subtleties.  That brings us to the editing process.

It is in the editing of the written word where we deal with the “non-verbal” elements.  Just as physical or verbal mannerisms can be either engaging or off-putting with a live audience, so too can mannerisms in our writing affect how the words are received and understood.  This is where a good editing session can be invaluable.  It is also a tool for dealing with written short-hand and word choices.

I had the good fortune of working with a no-nonsense editor a few years back.  She taught me that knowing how to self-edit like a trained proof-reader can actually make you a better “first pass” writer.  That way the exchange between writer and editor can more quickly go to the development and organization of the story.  Here is her “List of Six” that I was expected to use on my own before submitting my work:

  1. Read your work by sentence vs. by paragraph.  Read sentences out-of-order.  If you aren’t able to do this with your word processing tool, try reading the work backwards, one sentence at a time.  Do they make sense out of context?
  2. Use the tools available to you for spelling and grammar checks but do not rely on them 100%.  Beyond the tools, make certain that you review capitalization, punctuation, subject/verb agreement and a consistent verb tense.
  3. Be aware of commonly mis-used words and edit for them such as their, there and they’re.  (Or how about right and write!)
  4. Check that every sentence has two parts, e.g., a who or what and what’s happening.
  5. Beware of sentences that are too long.  If combining, use the correct words to connect the thoughts.  However, do not repeat the same “connector” excessively and keep the length in check.
  6. Use punctuation correctly and appropriately.  Rule #1:  Do not overuse the exclamation mark.  Its value to accentuate the thought diminishes with every use.

As a result of doing this on my own, my written communication skills improved across the board.  Not just within work I intended to formally publish, but also simple correspondence, e-mails, even blog posts.

Another editor I partnered with on technical writing provided insight specific to written short-hand and how to avoid it when detrimental to the reader.  That relationship also worked to deepen my own vocabulary and word usage skills.

What exercises created the change?  First was the document dictionary.  Every acronym, abbreviated word or “technical term” used within a document was required to be entered into a list and I had to “document” its meaning.  The more of these words I used, the longer the dictionary.  Needless to say, I began to realize quickly that if the reader had to continuously refer to a dictionary to understand the content, they would very quickly leave the writing and miss the message.

The next activity required that any descriptive words used more than twice in any piece be placed on a word list.  It was my responsibility to identify 2 – 3 other words I could use in its place and still retain the original meaning.  A forced thesaurus approach that changed enhanced the way I expressed thought.

Overall, our writing is a reflection of who we are, what we believe, how we think.  We cannot forget however that embellishments can distract from that and camouflage our message to the extent that the reader just passes it by.  At the core, that is the value of editing.  Its purpose is not to change the message, it is in fact to reveal it.






About Kathi Laughman

Referred to by her clients as “The Plan B to Z Expert”, Kathi inspires them to see beyond probabilities to possibilities. They are stronger, happier and more financially secure than ever before. The result is the creation of far more value in the rest of their story than they ever dreamed possible. She serves professionals committed to continuously creating new pathways to success and significance.


  1. Thank you for this blog. I have printed it for future reference.

  2. Thanks for a very informative post! That was all very helpful advice. I know that, if I am going to spend money on an editor, I want them to be able to focus on the story itself and not be distracted by typos, spelling and grammar mistakes that I could easily edit out myself.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Rebecca. I’m glad you found the information useful. It has certainly been of value to me over the years since one of my early editors shared it with me. I have some fun with reading things backwards.

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