Friday, 6 July 2012

Miscommunication Is the Root of All Evil - Take Pride in Pedantry!

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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Tim Dittmer said...

"A writer’s job is communication." Well written, as always.

Jeremy Bates said...

Ah, yes, the contemporary Twitter battle. It would appear that the man in question had a stick in his eye and was seeking Twarfare with you. On occasion, I get a knucklehead like that in either a direct message or across my timeline.

My standard reply is thus:

Sir/Ma'am, I have neither the time nor the inclination to argue semantics with you. Rather, I am here to make friends and enjoy their company. Have a great day!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

For this post, I should hope so! ;-) Thanks

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I believe after this I terminated the conversation, to which they got even snarkier, and I made no further response.

I had one a few weeks ago to whom I actually said something like 'If you are not interested in putting forward your position, only in shredding mine, then you are not looking for an intellectual exchange of opinions, only to make trouble. There is a name for that.'

Shah Wharton said...

You're so right. This i one reason why Twitter has never been my have place o hangout. I visit rarely, mainly to reply to genuine interaction or thank someone. I reviewed a top 6 author, gave her a 3.5/5 and she went on and on about my review (one she' clearly only heard about and not read). I said I'd been clear in my review that I didn't in no way insult her talent for the written word, but didn't enjoy the reading experience. It wasn't my kind of book/story/etc. She wouldn't let it go, saying I shouldn't chosen to read it if it wasn't my kind of book? What? There was all kinds of misunderstandings crossing between us. I took about three weeks off Twitter after that. I haven't 'conversed' on there since. Same with text messages. Awful things. Everything is liable to get lost in translation. I realised this kind of thing isn't limited to short text mediums, but it seems add the the likelihood in my experience.

Shah Wharton said...

My comment is yet another lesson in predictive text issues. I do apologise... Grr!

Mina Lobo said...

I'm very particular about words and their uses and meanings too. I think everyone should be, not just writers - though we should definitely lead the charge. Goooooooooooooooooo PEDANTS!!!!! :-D
Some Dark Romantic

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I agree, everyone should be, but some people are just ignorant about definitions etc. because they are not dealing with it day in and day out. Writers have no excuse and should know better!

Justin Bogdanovitch said...

Love this topic, Ciara. So many experts out there make me want to cringe. An editor makes the writer look so much better than we ever could alone -- does this figure into that person's outlook? Should it? But being pedantic is also about someone who needs to "control" another's actions/words. I don't have time for it and love Jeremy's standard reply. Thanks.

Tom Stronach said...

I suppose, it could be argued that the correct use of descriptive and proper language, whether in book or letter, is not pedantry, but just good old fashioned proper communication skills.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Absolutely pedantic has other meanings (one of the problems with English that breeds miscommunications) although I would hope from the context of this post it was clear which meaning was intended. I also have no time for controlling people, and it's interesting you mention this meaning of the word 'pedant' in the context that I was accused of pedantry by someone who was attempting to control me!

I am happy to exchange opinions on twitter, but when someone's sole purpose is to ridicule my opinion, without 'justifying' their own, then they are just trolling and not looking to share ideas.

Editors absolutely make us look better, but writers should learn from their editor's feedback and aim not to duplicate their mistakes.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I would certainly argue that, Tom! Although sadly plenty seem to disagree with me. Perhaps I have more love for words than those would carelessly misuse them.

Tom Stronach said...

As if I would argue with you xx

ConfabulateSkepsis said...

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