Saying What You Mean
“Words are bullets, not hand grenades, so good writers must be marksmen. It won’t do to lob a bullet into an enemy bunker.”
In his novel Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis writes, “to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.”
It’s a simple and profound principle: Writing well is saying exactly what you mean. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
But if you’ve done much writing, you’ve learned that accomplishing this objective is far more difficult than it seems. Writing is a wrestling match with language. We have thoughts to communicate, but they are muddled and confused. Writing is getting those boisterous, incorrigible thoughts into order—like getting sugar-intoxicated kindergartners lined up on a playground.
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Nobody starts a writing project with his ideas mentally arranged and ready for dictation onto the page. Most of us begin writing with only general concepts and a vague sense of direction. We only figure out what we want to say as we put our thoughts into words. We don’t think and then write. We think as we write. Flannery O’Connor expressed it when she said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
So the difficulty in saying what we mean begins with the fact that we often don’t know precisely what we mean in the first place. Add to that the limitations of our vocabulary and skill in expressing ourselves and you can see how saying what you mean is harder than it looks.
There are other factors that limit our ability to communicate with clarity and precision. One is that everyone comes to the words we write with varied experiences, tastes, biases, and mental abilities. These things can interfere with the reader’s ability to objectively get our meaning. In other words, it’s easy to be misunderstood.
If I read, for example, “A terrifying creature met me at the door.” I might imagine a vampire or a werewolf. You might picture a snake or giant tarantula. Someone else might envision Darth Vader or Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Thousands of factors, including our genes, family history, education, temperament, even the weather or time of year can all affect how we understand and respond to what we read.
And not only are the sender and receiver flawed in their abilities, the medium through which we send our messages—language—is imperfect too. Words are slippery things. Not only can a single word carry multiple definitions, it may carry even more barely perceptible connotations. Words are also shifty, tending to change meaning over time and across cultures.
So, what’s the answer? Should we just give up and assume that it doesn’t matter how we write since we are doomed to be misunderstood? No. It’s not impossible to be clear. It’s just difficult. Everyone believes this; otherwise, no one would ever bother writing or saying anything. But keeping in mind how easy it is to miscommunicate should motivate us to be as precise as possible.
Work for Precision
The greatest enemy to precision in writing is laziness. This laziness shows itself when we settle for a word or phrase that is “close enough” to what we mean. Close enough is the enemy of precise.
It’s happened to everyone. You are rolling along with your writing when suddenly everything comes to a halt. There’s a word or expression hiding somewhere in your consciousness that captures what you mean to say, but it’s just not making itself available. So, you settle for another option. It’s not exactly what you wanted to say, but it will do. It’s “close enough.” Taking a few minutes to search a dictionary or thesaurus would have done the trick, but instead of investing the extra effort, you settle. Do that a few times and soon you are circling round and round your meaning without ever landing. You read it over and end up exclaiming “That is not what I meant.”
Words are bullets, not hand grenades, so good writers must be marksmen. It won’t do to lob a bullet into an enemy bunker.
All writers are limited by their vocabulary and facility with words. The more words and expressions we know, and the more practice we get using them, the better we will be at writing with precision. Keep at it and don’t take shortcuts. Have resources nearby to help you say, as precisely as possible, exactly what you mean.
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“Words are bullets, not hand grenades, so good writers must be marksmen. It won’t do to lob a bullet into an enemy bunker.” Wow! Can I quote you on that? I love that statement and I think students could relate to it.
Of course, Mary. I was kind of proud of that line myself. 🙂