I'm a really literal writer. I don't write stuff that makes people "read between the lines." Problem is, people still always read between the lines. This leads to them understanding my writing in a way that wasn't my original intent.

For example, I ask a lot of questions on Stack Exchange. People think that I'm asking more than what's in the question. Comments:

I assume the downvotes indicate that people disagree with your idea of resetting the review ban whenever you pass an audit.

It wasn't an idea. It was just a question.

What is your end-goal here? Do you want to discontinue doing the extra math practice or do you want to disprove your father's accusations? Do you want to achieve your goals through talking to him, or by other means? As of now your question is unclear, thus as of now I vote to close.

I stated my end-goal multiple times in the question, but people keep trying to "solve my problem" instead of taking it at face value.

Pro-tip: complaining about downvotes tends to attract downvotes.

Again, not a complaint. It's a legitimate answer!

hey there @sag. From the several last questions you asked here on meta, and reading through your profile, it seems you have gripe with most communities you partake into. I'm trying really hard not to assume, but it seems you have some kind of "everyone else is wrong" attitude.

Probably used the wrong tone or something? Tried to sound neutral but I still came across as "gripey!"

How do I make my writing have only 1 clear, literal meaning to prevent unintentional alternative interpretations?

EDIT: The problem isn't other people's misunderstanding; it's my fault because my writing is unclear. I ask in this question for advice on how to make it clearer.

  • It is good form to wait for at least 24h before you accept an answer. Accepting something right away is a good way to get downvoted and to have people not answer Jul 10, 2018 at 20:59
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    You might provide links to the posts you reference. Then we could see the actual examples of writing that others apparently mis-interpreted.
    – Jay
    Jul 10, 2018 at 21:24
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    For the examples in this question, which seem to come from some StackExchange meta, I would say that providing context is always a good idea to make people understand what you are aiming at. One can also add exclusion terms ("I'm not interested in ...") to refine the scope even more. As for general writing, I have no idea. Jul 11, 2018 at 12:21
  • Yes please provide the links to each post. Until then we can't tell if it's people misrepresenting what you wrote (which is endemic on Meta), or it not being clear.
    – smci
    Jul 11, 2018 at 16:46
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    I was about to write a fun answer about doing this in fiction. Disappointed.
    – Andrey
    Dec 23, 2019 at 22:02

4 Answers 4


When you ask a question, people assume you are asking for a reason, that you intend to use the answer to make some decision. There is no such thing as "just a question".

The reason they read between the lines is because you have not made it apparent why you are asking this question.

Thus if you want to keep people from reading between the lines, make sure they also understand why you are asking, or what you intend to do with the answer, etc.

An example:

I'd like to improve my answers, it would help me if the down votes explained what they think is wrong with this one.

Or something similar. If you don't make clear your motive behind your message (intent, purpose, reason), people will guess at it, and often assume that motive is nefarious or tricksy. That's just the nature of this beast the Internet.

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    Reading beween the lines most of the time is the reader filling in blanks (either existing or perceived) with their own made up stuff. Also, every stack question benefits from being created from a real need. People will answer based on this assumption. They will try to figure out what you need from what you wrote, and usually "just a question" is not developed enough to cover all bases. Aug 6, 2018 at 18:04
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    Anecdote: Jack goes to a bar, and asks the bartender: "Do you have a soda?" The bartender grabs a soda bottle, and in a swift motion removes the cap and puts the soda in front of Jack, already with a plastic straw. Then jack grimaces: "I just wanted to know if you had soda in stock, I didn't want to have a soda." - - - - Jack lacked specificity. Aug 6, 2018 at 18:08

Your question is mainly about SE-Posts, but you asked in Writing.se so as such I´ll give a general writing Answer.

  1. Technical Writing:

Misinterpretation always points to ambiguities in your writing. You may think you are concise, but the fact alone that you get these responses are proof that you are not. Try to find out where the ambiguity comes from and try to refine your text. It´s sometimes not too easy to do this, as your own view is colored by your existing prejudice. Trying to get a little distance to your writing and then come back again helps sometimes. That said, as long as you are not writing actual code, you won´t ever get to 100% - the viewer brings with them their own prejudice and you can´t change that

  1. Writing as Art/Entertainment:

As with any art-from, interpretation is at the viewers discretion. There is nothing you can do about it - it´s feature not a bug!

  • "There is nothing you can do about it" I fully agree with this answer although the ending might be a bit too pessimistic. One can probably, with experience, learn to steer it a bit, getting metaphorical and ambiguous at one point and clear, concise and unambiguous somewhere else. What works for 1. may also work for 2. if adapted. Jul 11, 2018 at 12:28
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    @Trilarion: You are right but OTOH if you do too much steering it borders on explaining and it isn´t art anymore! Or put another way: if you are too concise your are putting off the reader, because you don´t allow him to project his own personality into it. It then becomes a sort-of technical writing. Just like a joke you have to explain.
    – Daniel
    Jul 11, 2018 at 12:34

The question of yours on SE that was deleted has to do with hormonally influenced voting. Do you not perceive why this would sound like a gender-biased question?

To answer the question you pose here, Simple. Bold the exact question you are asking, with "Question" preceding it, and state that your words are to be taken at face value. Let me demonstrate:

Answer: Bold the exact question and state that your words are to be taken at face value.

You can add a flourish, like saying, "I hope I am not insulting anyone here. It is not my intent."

With that demonstration of self-awareness, people will understand that you are saying "Do not read between the lines."

Edit: I assume that you make the effort before posing the question to run your question through common 'sensitivity filters.' Example, Am I using denigrating language? Am I using humor that is in poor taste? Am I attempting to write clearly without allowing personal idiosyncracies to detract from my question? One can look at their post and ask what simple ways it might be misinterpreted and then correct it to be more clear. Similarly, if someone says that something is offensive, the post can be edited.

  • I don't like bolding questions. It means You don't know how to create the question or You are asking to solve too much complex problem.
    – deadfish
    Jul 11, 2018 at 13:48
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    My communications teacher used to tell us that while you are responsible for all the messages you intend to send, you are also responsible for all the messages you sent unintentionally. In this example, if you don't want to offend people, reword your question so it cannot be read offensively — which might mean "don't ask the question, because it's inherently offensive." Saying "I'm not trying to be offensive" usually means "I know this is offensive but I'm trying to get away with it anyway by prefacing it with an I'm-sorry-if-you-took-offense pseudoapology." (cont'd) Jul 11, 2018 at 15:14
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    (cont'd) If you have to say "Just take this at face value," you are acknowledging that there exists an alternate interpretation which could be negative. If you don't want that option, don't write it that way. Jul 11, 2018 at 15:16
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    @DPT oh of course; some people try to be offended. My point is that there are ways to reword something to minimize offensive potential which are not "I'm just gonna say this bluntly and put 'Sorry but' in front of it first, and you should accept that as sufficient." Instead of adding disclaimers that you're not a Richard Cranium, edit to be nicer first. Jul 11, 2018 at 19:18
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    @LaurenIpsum Good point. I'll add that to the answer.
    – SFWriter
    Jul 11, 2018 at 21:59

Q: How do I make my writing have only 1 clear, literal meaning to prevent unintentional alternative interpretations?

A: By asking question that have only one answer.

e.g.: How far is it from Aberdeen to London according to Google Maps?

No, wait - skip that - here's a better one:

e.g.: What's one plus one (assuming you're a mathematician not a chemist)?

Questions with a narrow focus do not invite questions, comments or debate. They are answerable with very little effort; perhaps just a quick internet search.

(I was going to spin off into a spiel about other types of questions that seem to invite people to interpret (or misinterpret) them according to their own nature, perceptions, knowledge-base, cognitive development, level of intelligence (intellectual, social, emotional or otherwise) and other such personal factors, and I was going to express my opinion that these are the interesting questions in life, but then point out that they have no place in this community because of the rules governing (rightly or wrongly (in the eyes of those who desire life to be other than what is is)) what is allowed (or not) here; but then I thought 'better not'.)

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    I asked Google Maps the question how far it is from Aberdeen to London. He gave me several options to choose from. So now I'm confused how to interpret the question. Do I need to fastest route? Or the shortest? Which transportation do I pick? Perhaps it is wise to zoom in on the question and make it more detailed so the ways to interpred the question are more limited so it leaves less confusion :( Jul 11, 2018 at 11:15
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    Good point, @Totumus. One answer might be that Google Maps is giving us one answer in several parts and that this answer remains fixed and true (until more roads or built or Google's algorithms are updated), but another reply I could give is that I'm crap at giving examples that can't be picked apart by someone willing to spend their precious time and effort on such pursuits. ;) And yeah, I know answers like this are waaay too snarky and are frowned upon by all and sundry, but perhaps if I sneak one in every now and again it's not going to hurt. After all, we're like old friends, yes? :)
    – robertcday
    Jul 11, 2018 at 11:24
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    @robertclay haha, I know right. But no worries. I was just trying to raise your awareness that making a question which has only just 1 answer is really hard. And as you said there are always people who can complain about that given enough time. And I love to do that! There are few questions I cannot pick apart ;) Jul 11, 2018 at 11:31

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