Question mark in clouds

Smoke signals: what are you trying to say?

When you open up your laptop and start typing, whether it’s a business email, a proposal, an essay or a blog post, there are two questions you should consider. Before you hit send or post, ask yourself these questions:

1/ What message am I trying to send?

2/ What message will my readers actually get?

Imagine seeing an old-style American Indian in a western. He lights a fire, and waves a blanket over it, sending puffs of smoke into the sky. The tribe at the other side of the hill can read his signals, but what about the army officers or the cowboy posse? They can see the signal, but have no way of reading it, other than to understand that their enemy knows where they are. The Red Indian’s smoke puffs are like a form of Morse code: if you don’t know what the dots and dashes represent, you can’t read the telegram.

Of course, we don’t use smoke signals or Morse code any more, or yodelling, intricate whistling or other non-verbal methods of passing information. We type words. Words are collections of symbols which we learn as children to decode into the language that comes out of our mouths. (Unlucky people with dyslexia or learning difficulties may struggle with them forever). But what you type out listening to the words in your head, may not be what the reader, translating in their head, hears.

And here I’m going to head off on a rant: emojis.

In 2015, Oxford Dictionary chose an emoji, ‘Face with Tears of Joy Running Down’ as its Word of the Year. Linguists and word lovers around the world (including me) were incensed. An emoji is NOT a word! Oxford Dictionary was pandering to what it hopes is a younger readership. An emoji is a pictogram, a handy piece of visual information, prettier code certainly than Morse code’s dots and dashes, or puffs of smoke, but you cannot say an emoji. You can only read the emotional message it’s sending if you know the code. Emojis serve a useful purpose in conveying an emotion in an email or a Facebook comment, but compared to language, it’s rather vague shorthand. If I send a heart (the emoji I use most), my friends know I’m thinking of them, that I care about them, but someone who doesn’t know me well could read it to mean I’m romantically interested in them.

There is no place for emojis in business emails! But you should know that already.

Back to focusing on your writing.

Last week I had the novel experience of proofreading my own  work, in this case my soon to be published verse novel — a series of connected narrative poems in the voices of different people. Of course I’d proofread the work several times before sending it to the publisher. This time was different. I was simultaneously reading it to spot errors (mine or the typesetter’s), and trying to read like someone who hadn’t written every single word. How does this line sound? Will they understand that statement? Will they see her point of view, his grief, their passion? Can they follow the threads? Of course, it’s impossible to read exactly as if you haven’t typed these particular words, but it’s a good exercise to try, every time before you hit send. How likely is someone to misread, misinterpret what you’ve written? It’s so clear to you! Will it be clear to your readers?

Business writing, promotional material, academic papers are nothing like poetry. Writing poetry is not the same as writing a novel or a short story. There are different rules for different writing styles. Know the rules for the type of writing you need or want to do. Practise them. Wherever possible, keep your writing plain, keep it clear, keep it simple.

!!Remember: If something can be misunderstood, it will be! Don’t send smoke signals, send a clear message.

small rainbow keyboard
To refresh your memory about clear and plain writing, have a look at two of my earlier posts: Writing Plain English and Keeping it Fresh.

Until next time,



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