Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Words

Over on Zette's blog, Zette's Writing and Photography, she's been talking about an incident that happened at FM a month or so ago. The link is to the first post, but she has several more over the next few days, if you're interested in reading the entire bit that prompted my thoughs. The part that's stuck in my mind and prompted this post is that the writer wrote a bunch of posts and everyone who read them thought he was saying "X". He insisted he meant to say "Y". He complained that over on another writer's forum he wrote similar posts and they thought he said "X", too. He couldn't understand why he was being so badly misunderstood. I could see why he got the reaction he did. It was due to the writing style of his posts, the words he chose and how he put them together. The subsequent train wreck was inevitable because he made the mistake of assuming that his readers use words the way he does. When their reaction indicated they didn't, he essentially said that they were at fault for the misunderstanding because they should have used words the way he did.

This incident has been periodically invading my brain ever since. It's got me thinking about words. I'm a writer. I hang out with a lot of writers. They write everything you can think of. Fiction. Technical articles. Articles for magazines on a variety of subjects. Reports for work and assignments for school. Theses. Letters, emails, and posts. Business correspondence. Is there any literate person who doesn't write something, at least occasionally?

Words are a writer's most basic tool. Our goal is to say something. Sometimes we want to communicate information. Sometimes we want to entertain or evoke a certain emotion. Other times we might want to persuade the reader to agree with a certain viewpoint. Sometimes we just want the business to make right whatever went wrong with our purchase. Whether we're successful largely depends on the words we choose.

It's important to consider the dictionary definition when choosing words, but as my son reminded me after taking a linguistics class this past quarter, the dictionary can only tell you what a word meant at the time the dictionary was written. Definitions change. People use words in new ways. Writers need to be aware of that fluidity of language and take it into consideration when choosing which word is the best one to communicate what we intend to say. Just knowing the current meaning may not be enough. If we're writing about an earlier time than our own we may need to look up the etymology of a word to make sure we're not using it in a way that's wrong for that time. A good slang dictionary can help you know when a word developed its slang meaning. Knowing language and how to use it is only one side of the page.

The other side of the page is knowing our readers. Do our word choices communicate what we mean to people who read them? Even something seemingly as simple as what color an object is can mean something different to different people. Take red. If I write "a cherry red car", you will get an image of a car and owner. It will most likely be different if I write "a fire engine red car". Or if I write "a rose red car". The images you got from reading my car descriptions are different because they're based on more than just what the words mean in the dictionary. For example, they're based on things like the culture you come from. I would expect someone from America to see a different image than someone from Asia. Your experience with cars will affect the image you see. One person might think of classic American cars while another thinks of fancy sports cars. People of different ages will see different images, even if they're in the same culture. If you're my kids' ages or younger, you might not even have an image of "fire engine red" because they changed the paint on fire engines to lime green before they were born. All readers bring their own perspectives and perceptions with them when they read our words.

Because of those different perspectives we writers cannot assume that people reading our words will have the same reaction to them or that their reaction will be the same as our own. We usually don't know who our reader will be. So we have to guess at his reaction. How do we make good guesses? Writers are required to spend a lot of time alone, inside our own heads. We're only partly writing for ourselves, but we don't have the reader inside our head directing our words flawlessly to perfect understanding. How do we figure out readers?

We can learn a lot about choosing words by paying attention to our emotional reactions to them when we're reading, watching TV or movies and talking with other people. That's what a lot of writers do because writers tend to be introverts. However, we need to know how other people react. The best way to make better guesses about other people comes from observing the world. Writers, particularly fiction writers, are always being told to observe the world. Usually that admonition refers to using your senses so you can write rich description or listening to people talk so you can write good dialogue. I'm talking about a different kind of observation.

To do it we have to get out from behind the keyboard, put our pen and paper down, and go out. Participate in life, but keep a bit of our brains busy watching people. Eavesdrop shamelessly. Pay attention to the reactions people have to what's being said to them. Watch how they react to what other people say and do. When we pay attention, we can see which words with innocuous dictionary definitions have emotion-laden connotations. Which words are fairly neutral. Which words cause misunderstandings? What words are "hot button" words people trot out when they're angry? What words do people use when they want something they don't think the other person wants to give them? Why do some lines work better for seduction than others? When we ask those kind of questions and think about how we'd describe what we experience to someone who wasn't there, we start to gain insight into how words affect people, which can help us choose words that are more likely to say what we mean.