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But what does it mean?

A recent discussion I was engaged in, with a blogger I respect but differ with on occasion, has put me in mind of what happens to writing once it’s published.  It is an often stated truism that once you put it out there, it means whatever the reader thinks it means, not what you intended to say.  Ironically, I have to say that while it’s true, it is often misinterpreted.  It does not mean that you shouldn’t care how your writing is interpreted.

After all, while writing can be therapeutic, there’s no point in making it public unless you want to communicate something.  I get that some people will never understand whatever it is that you’re on about; that’s the uncertainty of the enterprise.  You lose control once you fling that child of yours into the wild.  But, up to the point of sending it out, you have total control.  Why wouldn’t you want to make your message as clear as possible?

There are times, of course, when ambiguity is precisely the message.  Then it’s up to you to make the ambiguity as clear as possible.  There’s a big difference between subtlety and obfuscation.  It’s the art of making sure the rock under which you’re hiding the key tells you something about the door it opens.

There are other times when the very thing you think clarifies your meaning forces a detour around it.  The discussion I mentioned above was about the use of profanity in writing.  Profanity calls attention to the point you’re making, which is why people like to use it, but so does an exclamation point, or writing in all caps.  Undeniably, there are situations in which these things are justified, but they are few and far between.  Overuse them, and you become the meaning, instead of the text.  Think of it: what is your reaction when you see something in all caps, with exclamation points at every opportunity?  Is it to consider more carefully the importance of the text, or is it to consider the character of the author, regardless of the text?

To me, certain words are carriers of attitude: fuck, shit, bitch, and the like.  I’m not sure I care about the attitude of the writer as much as what they are trying to say.  More importantly, when you use these words, what do you want me to think about as a reader?  Your attitude or your message?

5 thoughts on “But what does it mean?

  1. Good point, I never thought of it this way. There are blogs and websites that have the word ‘fuck’ right in their title. I don’t mind some swearing—I’m guilty of it myself when around people who swear, and sometimes those who don’t. A well-placed curse can be the perfect emphasis. But I refrain from it in writing. It has its place in dialogue, but that’s for fiction writers. Some writers may think a blog is a license to be ‘real,’ or want readers to know how outspoken they are—but it actually sounds forced. There are half a million words in our ever-expanding language to choose from—grab a dictionary and try a few.

    I believe most people’s reaction to something written in all caps with lots of exclamation points would be to ignore it completely, because the attitude slaps you in the face at first glance. This practice is usually found in comments to online news articles, and they don’t seem to understand it has the opposite effect of what they intended—we’re sick of you before we even read your comment.

    • I’m right with you. Lots of swearing you hear around, but we don’t write the way we speak, do we? If we did, everyone could win a Booker. It’s nothing to do with prudishness, and everything to do with style.

  2. My husband is a very concise and very clear speaker. He was a math professor at University and he always wanted to make sure that the questions were at fair and clear as possible. He is very good at asking specific non ambiguous questions he is maddening sometimes to talk too because he will ask you a million questions but he was always give you a very very well thought out answer. You can ask him anything if he does not know he will research it and come back to you. He has taught me a lot. I am a lot more concise now (I used to ramble a lot more if you can believe it). He is concrete I am very abstract, abstraction is my strength but I do my best to make the message clear. I don’t always succeed of course. Like most writers I sometimes get carried away by pretty words, I am trying to combine his beautiful clean strait-forward messages and my chaos, abstractions and intensity lol Yeah I know maybe it is a lost cause but I think my work has gotten more palatable over the years.

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