Do You Know What I Mean?

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This morning I was watching the news, and saw a story about a small town mayor who was insisting that the police engage in no more foot chases after suspects. The cost of their injuries was driving the city’s insurance rates sky-high, so she’d sent a memo to the department, saying “no foot chases, under any circumstances whatsoever.” A reporter asked her what she expected the police to do if they witnessed a crime a short distance away and could easily overtake the suspect. Shouldn’t they run over and intervene? But if they did, weren’t they breaking the rule she wanted to lay down? She waved a hand and said, “They know what I mean.”

So many writers do exactly the same thing. The world is so clear in their heads that they forget to tell the reader what they see, what they hear, and what precisely is going on. They assume the reader will just know what they mean. That’s a dangerous thing to do. It’s a little like travelling to another country and being certain you’ll be able to find someone who speaks your language. Suddenly you’re wandering the streets unable to even ask for directions. You’re lost.

Readers can get lost easily. When they do, they stop reading. It’s up to the writer to provide signposts and clues so the reader stays involved. All the great tips David has shared about worldbuilding are a huge part of that. But the writer also has to be certain he’s saying exactly what he means on the page. Never assume the reader will get it. I’ve been guilty of it myself – reading out loud at critique groups, only to discover that the brilliant prose wasn’t making any sense, because I was writing so fast I forgot to let the reader keep up with my thoughts. Be brilliant, be thrilling but be clear. Your reader will thank you.

Speaking of that, know the words you’re using before you type them. Vocabulary is a joyful treasure, but only when you’re using it correctly. If you’re not sure what a word means, use the dictionary to look it up before you type it. And don’t trust the SpellCheck. It can be a handy tool, granted, but it can lead you astray when it suggests other words for you to use instead of the one you misspelled. Once upon a time, a woman in my writing group was describing a murderer’s living room. She mentioned the color of the walls, the soft carpet, the way the sunlight warmed the room, and then she wrote about the Nubian laid across the back of the sofa. I burst into giggles, and nearly choked on my soda. The writer stared at me as if I’d lost my mind. “It’s just another word for a blanket. What’s so funny about that?” she asked. She’d used the Spellcheck, which indicated that she could choose a different word than the one she initially typed, ‘afghan’.

Trouble was, an afghan is a blanket. A Nubian is a person.

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8 comments to Do You Know What I Mean?

  • Yeah, I have dictionary.com bookmarked. It has thesaurus.com as part of it. Both handy tools when you’re trying to keep from repeating a word too much or when you’re trying to figure out whether a word means what you really think it does.
    http://dictionary.reference.com/

    One of the things I asked my proofers for are any places that I need to expand or any places that didn’t make sense or lost them.

  • Great post, Misty. This is another issue I’ve encountered recently working with a student. As you say, the story and setting and magic system are all quite clear in this person’s head, but the explanations are too rushed and too vague to convey much to the reader, the end result being that none of the cool stuff this person is writing about reaches its intended audience. All the great character development and worldbuilding in the world can’t make up for unclear prose.

    And the story about the Nubian is priceless.

  • Misty, Nubian…
    I snorted tea.
    Thank God it wasn’t something carbonated.

  • *laughs out loud* Oh dear. The poor woman. :)

    I look up words even when I’m sure I know what they mean. I’m almost always right, but occasionally I do not look up words when I’m sure I know what they mean, and that way, surprisingly often, lies disaster. Or it’ll be a word that I’m sure I know what it means, and it turns out I’ve got one letter wrong, and it makes it into a whole different word, or something like that. Dictionaries are our *friends*. :)

  • Misty,

    That was hilarious. OMG. I cannot believe that one. Sheesh.

  • Deb Smythe

    Ha. And be careful with search and replace as well. I once replaced van with wagon and forgot to select whole words only. It did not work out to my advantage but rather to my adwangontage etc.

  • To this day, in my mind’s eye I can still see that poor Nubian, balancing precariously on the back of the sofa…

    Deb, I remember a story Tim Powers told once, of deciding to change a character’s name from David to Dondi, so he used search and replace. And sent his editor into gales of laughter when he ran across a character riding a Harley Dondison motorcycle.

  • QUOTE: To this day, in my mind’s eye I can still see that poor Nubian, balancing precariously on the back of the sofa…

    Haha! I guess it could still work for some novels, like maybe Conan. *puts on Schwarzenegger like voice* “I have no time for you Nubian, get off my couch!”

    I’ve always had a pretty good grasp of words and meaning, even as a kid. When I first started roleplaying in D&D at maybe age 10 or 11 I suddenly found myself wondering just how my friends could quaff a gauntlet of ogre-power. 😉 Evidently they thought it was some form of container that held a potion.