A writer’s job is communication. We traffic in conveying meaning, using words. Our job is not to use the fanciest word available, or the most obscure, or to use a technically correct but little understood definition of a word. 

Short and simple, our job is to get the reader to understand our meaning. 

If a writer means one thing, and the reader interprets another, the writer has failed at their job. 

There is, of course, some flexibility – we do allow the reader some latitude to use their own imagination to fill in the detail of a scene, but the details you do mention, the elements critical to the plot, must be understood as intended or events may not make sense. If you’re writing non-fiction, getting this right may be even more critical! As a lawyer, I know the finest nuance can mean a big difference in the end result!

Why is it, then, that I get so much push-back from people when I am particular about the meaning of words? I expect this from non-writers, but not from other writers, who should understand the critical difference in meaning that may be conveyed by choosing one word over another. 

Yes, you got me, I wrote this post because someone annoyed me. Again.

I was having a conversation on Twitter when someone suggested I could ‘ask Hemingway’. Now of course, he is dead, so I took it as a joke, and replied in a humorous vein with something to the effect of I’d like to if only he wasn’t dead (because, let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want to sit down and pick Hemingway’s brain?). 

Well, apparently this person wasn’t joking, because they replied with the very snarky comment ‘And it’s too hard to read his books’.
I was a bit put out, because I never said I wouldn’t read his books, or that I didn’t respect his work. But talking to the man, and reading his books, are two totally different things. Sure, you can learn a bit by reading an author’s books, but what that author can tell you may be something very different. 

As an example, I very much admire Brandon Sanderson’s prose, especially in The Way of Kings where it is spare, elegant and efficient. And yet, when I met Brandon Sanderson, he said prose doesn’t come easily to him. So from his books I may learn technically good prose. From the man, I can learn that even if it doesn’t come naturally, you can still learn to do it, and how. Two very different lessons.

So what this person on Twitter said to me, and what they meant, were two very different things. So I pointed this out, gently I thought (or as gently as one can in 140 characters).  In return, I was called a pedant. 

Yes, yes I am. Are you? Are you a writer? Then you should be a pedant. 

How much would it affect your story if something you said in earnest was taken by your reader to be a joke? It would depend on the moment I expect, and could range from puzzling to downright shocking. What about if a critical plot element was misunderstood? It may cripple your story, rendering it nonsensical. 

Writers are wordsmiths, expert in words. Make sure you choose the most appropriate words to convey your meaning. Aim to be as clear as possible. Avoid obscure words. Avoid obscure definitions of common words. Be aware of ‘perception’. Does a word have a colloquial or slang meaning more predominant than its technical definition meaning?  An example is ‘author’. 

Technically if you have authored a piece of writing, you are an author, but tell someone outside the writing community you are an author and they will think you are published with a Big 6 publisher and living off your royalties – I almost guarantee it. Be aware of these types of issues and, yes, cater to them! 

Your purpose is to convey your intended meaning, not to look ultra-sexy or secret-spy smart while doing it. And if you write something that can be misread in some fabulous fashion, the only thing you will look is stupid. 

And don’t even get me started on the problems caused within families, friendships and marriages by miscommunications. 

Writers, you should know better. Get it right. Take pride in your pedantry.

Or woman…

If you missed it, check out my review of Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson here.

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