“Your guidelines should be so clear as to not permit so much wriggle room,” he said.

I started at my screen for a moment, feeling my neck heat up with the sheer arrogance of his implication. Besides the fact that I did spend quite a bit of time trying to make them as transparent and clear as possible, it’s a known impossibility.

Anyone who’s ever written anything knows that it will always be interpreted by someone in an unintended way. Have a look at the US Constitution, which we’re still arguing about to this day. It’s categorically impossible to write anything in a way that will be perfectly understood by everyone who reads it, past, present, or future.

Let’s step back though and think about what the post of such a statement might be.

Everything we write for the purposes of education should be as clear as possible, in order to minimize confusion. We can all agree on that. Guidelines, documentation, how-tos, and the like are all for education. When you write a story, a novel for example, you don’t need to write for clarity but for a different purpose. I won’t get into that today.

To that end, his statement was correct. We should write our guidelines not to permit wriggle room.

However when we consider what the guidelines were, and please note they are indeed guidelines and rules, we hit a different situation. Guidelines are meant to direct people into doing what is expected of them. Some can be as clear as “Don’t steal” but others have to be a little more broad like “Don’t hurt people intentionally.” That’s a very big statement, and while it’s certainly a good guideline for any group, enforcing it without specific examples is always going to be problematic.

The difference between rules and guidelines is that rules can be clear, while guidelines must allow for interpretation. And even with rules, it’s categorically impossible to write them in a way that will never ever be misconstrued.

So what do we do?

We write things as clearly as possible. We state, upfront, that the guidelines have an intended purpose and what that is. We remind people that the guidelines cannot cover each and every possible permutation of events. We admit that some of these will be up to the discretion of the people enforcing them. We write a disclaimer that we are human and we are mortal.

We do our best. And if someone says “These could be better” we ask “How? Please help.”

I can tell you from experience, less than 1% of people who complain about your guidelines will help, though.

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