On Eroding Reader Confidence

My wife and I had a frustrating moment with some doctor’s instructions last week, two of the eight steps it included were (paraphrased, because the paper is gone):

  • Shower 24 hours after the procedure
  • No bathing, pools, or other swimming for a week

Now, “bathe” can just mean “to wash,” so while we were pretty sure that this meant “don’t take a bath,” we pondered if we were getting contradictory instructions. As you might imagine, we wanted to be certain that we understood what the doctor wanted us to do. It turns out that we were interpreting the instructions correctly, but it made us wonder if there was something else in the instructions that we weren’t interpreting right.

Our confidence in understanding all of the instructions was questioned.

* * *

Last week, I was playing a game that had minor copy errors in it, referring to sections and instructions by slightly different names. It was enough to be frustrating, and made those of us playing wonder what errors were in the rules that weren’t so obvious.

Our confidence in being able to trust the rules as a whole was questioned, even the parts that didn’t appear to have obvious errors.

* * *

In a Fate game I made some time ago, I wrote “The base difficulty for this is Fair (+1).” Fair isn’t +1 on the Fate ladder, it’s +2. I meant “Average (+1),” but I could have easily meant “Fair (+2)” and the reader didn’t know which one I meant.

In that moment, I’ve made the reader question whether the other figures on that page, in that section, in that book, and in me overall.

* * *

That’s the thing about reader confidence—it’s easily eroded by obvious mistakes. I don’t just mean errors like typos[1], but getting names of sections wrong, using easily confusable words, and so on. Part of an editor’s job is to handle these issues, of course, but an editor isn’t the last or only line of defense.

When we do this—and we will, because perfection is a hollow lie—it’s on us to make good, which is either difficult or impossible. We don’t just get to say “but you knew what I meant.” We’re not having a conversation with the reader, it’s all one-way transmission. When I make an obvious error, you suddenly don’t know what you should trust. If you make one in something I’m reading, you have no way of being able to assure me that the rest of the piece is reliable.

I liken it to being in a meadow, seeing one landmine poking out, and suddenly being afraid of the landmines that you don’t see. Before you see that landmine, you have the confidence to enjoy the meadow. Afterward, you’re unsure where to step safely. (That’s a little hyperbolic, because there are ways to attempt to earn reader trust back, and they’re less harrowing than proving a meadow to be mine-free, but the analogy still works.)

There’s no neat solution, no magic bullet to solve this problem. You’ve just got to strive, to have people around who will reliably point out and deal with these problems. But more than that, be sympathetic to moments of reader confusion or cognitive dissonance. Consider your readers charitably, so that should you start to erode their confidence you can work to earn it back.

 – Ryan

P.S. This is actually the core of my deal regarding publishers using “FATE” instead of “Fate.” It’s a simple thing that’s part of the legal text that has to be copied, part of every bit of text that refers to the game itself in Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. That one obvious error tells me to be suspicious of the rest of the book, to question the creators’ sense of responsibility to the reader. And if I see that on a cover or on e-store sales copy, I’m questioning all that of the book before I’ve even opened it.

[1] Typos certainly are annoying, but one here and there doesn’t cause the same degree of confidence damage that factual errors and sloppy references do. Dozens of typos, on the other hands…