The Importance of Precision, Accuracy, and Paying Attention

18 Dec

“But, craft! What word through yonder misuse breaks? It is the least, and language is undone! Arise, undone, and kill the erroneous use, which is meaningless and a pale excuse.”

If you don’t see anything wrong with that rather silly re-write of the famous Shakespeare quote; you either are providing an example of why it’s important to avoid merely scanning a text and assuming you understand the meaning, or you studied a far more interesting version of Romeo and Juliet than I ever did. If it’s the latter, please tell me where to find the more interesting version.

Now, I will admit that people who don’t listen to/pay attention to what is said/written have always been a pet peeve of mine. …A pedigree, show-grade champion of a pet peeve, to be precise. Nothing gets my goat (although I do not have a goat) quite like asking a clear question and then hearing the person I am speaking with answer a completely different question. To give an example: “What equipment do you need to make a video blog?” “Oh, it’s really difficult”+no further information given. Okay, thanks for the warning and insulting implication that you think I can’t do it, but that wasn’t what I asked. Or, to give another example – which may be more familiar to those of you who have to deal with collecting information from customers – “And what name do I put down?” “[Phone number]”.

I’m not talking about the kind of answering a different question when it’s clear that the inquiry (or any statement, etc) has been understood and a completely possible but incidentally incorrect motive has been applied (“Do you want to get lunch?” “I’m already seeing someone.” “Okay, I can see where you could misunderstand since get lunch is often code and congrats on that impressively sized self-confidence, but I really was just talking about lunch.”). I’m talking about when the clear meaning of the words used are ignored or assumed to be something those words cannot mean. I’m talking (well, writing) about occasions when someone says “Hey gang/group/guys/other obvious plural address which is incapable of being directed at just one person unless they are literally a five headed dragon” and someone else responds to complain about how the first person is asking them and them alone for advice or a ruling on something.

I’m talking about all the occasions when there’s no deafening background noise to explain why “can I have a [food item] and a [drink], to take away” almost inevitably will result in the immediate question of “was that have here or take away?”, time when “I can see where so-and-so is coming from” is replied to with “how dare you take their side!” and “this friendship-focused story features a cameo by character X” results in a ‘fan’ (term used dubiously) sending an increasingly insane barrage of comments demanding to know when character X and the lead are going to fall in love and where is the porn chapter already?!? – I’m sorry to say that last is taken without exaggeration from my own experience in one fandom. That incident (which resulted in my having to block the user and flee the fandom because they were just that persistent in demanding to know why I had “lied”) was particularly egregious as the story was clearly labelled “Gen” (for those not in the know, in fanfiction “gen” is without-romance, while “het” is heterosexual romance and “slash” is homosexual romance – “femslash” sometimes being used to indicate lesbian rather than gay pairings), was filed in the Gen section and had the word “cameo” in front of the only mention of the other character. There was absolutely no way that someone could have accidentally found that story while looking for slash.

But I digress. The world would be a much, much less frustrating (and scary, and goat-stealing) place if people would actually pay attention to what has REALLY been said or written instead of assuming. Why is this something I’m ranting about on a blog dedicated to fantasy, fiction and folklore? Well, in part it is a desperate plea to readers to please actually make sure they paid attention before asking why something wasn’t explained (I’ve had this faaaaaaar to many times with my stories – nothing makes me despair for humanity quite like having carefully explained something in a scene dedicated to answering that question, only to have a review from someone who “loved every word” of the story but wanted an explanation for something which had an entire scene of explanation). Now, obviously, when an explanation is in a single sentence of a novel length work it’s understandable that a reader might miss it, so I probably shouldn’t grit my teeth so much when I reply that it was explained on page [blah] of the story, but it’s something entirely different when there is a great deal of explanation and clarification written on a point and it should have been as impossible to miss as the full moon in a cloudless night’s sky.

Primarily, however, this isn’t a rant about inattentive readers. It’s about people who call themselves writers but don’t pay attention to words – their own and those of others. Writing is the Craft of the Written Word. Language, words, meanings, and grammar: these are the basic building blocks – the absolutely necessary tools – of the wordsmith. And here’s the bit where I piss a LOT of people off:

Anyone can write something: that does not make you a writer (and that’s not a bad thing; it just means you’re really talented in some other field and should pursue that instead). Nor does splashing some paint-stick figures on a canvas or completing a paint-by-numbers picture make you a painter. Nor does squawking in a karaoke bar make you a singer. Nor does basic arithmetic make you a mathematician. Nor does taking a carving knife to someone’s chest make you a heart surgeon. Most people are not and will never be writers, even if they write something, and despite what everyone has been claiming: writing is not easy. A musician must understand pitch, meter, musical notation, timing, chords and keys, the physical action of playing, tempo, some mathematics, and easily a dozen other things. When a musician walks around, a small part of their mind will still be attuned to their particular skill and will pick up the specifics of it in the works of others – specifics than non-musicians would not notice – and they will notice if something is misused (have you ever watched a singer trying not to wince as their loving, non-singer family members gave them a rousing and poorly performed chorus of Happy Birthday?). A painter must understand colour, types of paint, types of brush, different strokes a brush can make, types of canvas, the way light effects the piece, shadow and light, depth and distance and, yes, even some mathematics. When a painter walks around they will still notice light and shadow in a different way than non-painters, will pay more attention to colours in nature and those chosen by people, they will identify them correctly (“the teal shirt” not “the greenish shirt”) and will notice far more easily if they are misused (“I wouldn’t paint your house that colour: it’ll looked washed out in proper sunlight”).

Similarly, a writer must understand many things: how language works, grammar and punctuation, spelling and idioms, word meanings, pacing and structure (a screenplay with inciting incident in the eleventh, rather than tenth, minute will subconsciously feel “slow and dragging” to the audience!), human psychology for characters, genre conventions, meter if they’re working with poetry (math again!), social conventions, the unspoken social implications that various words have developed which are not given in their specific definitions, how world building works, drama, the sound of the words, flow and meter (non-poetic), reader psychology and interests, description, and all the thousands of specific techniques which are available (pop quiz! Can you name the technique used in the opening “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times”?).

Thus, a writer when about in the real world (dubious as its existence may be) should still be attuned to their craft – to words and stories – and so ought to both pay more attention to what others say/write and be more precise and accurate in their own word choice. Which leads me back to what I began this rant talking about; about how irritating it is for everyone when they say or write one thing only for their word choices to be ignored by someone who assumes things by only half-paying attention. You see, although not everyone is a writer, we all use words and we all make word choices – we are attuned to the language we have learned, be it with grammatical exactitude as a second language speaker, or in the causal way native speakers learn, so even though we do not always consciously consider why we say one thing and not another similar thing, we have always made a decision (typically subconscious) that the chosen word is the most accurate, and when someone ignores that they are unwittingly implying that they think we are not capable of saying what we mean. When we babble that the shirt was “green” we do mean something different than when we say it is “greenish”. Yes, sometimes our mental wires get crossed (or maybe nibbled on by those stolen goats) and we say things like “would you like another cup of nose” to someone with an impressive nasal protrusion, but generally when we say something our minds have selected the most precise and accurate word for the job – and thus when we read, and actually pay attention rather than skimming and assuming, we get very different pictures from seemingly minor differences (“he said, shaking” vs. “he said, his voice shaking” for example).

The world is a busy and complicated place, so it would be ridiculous not to grant leeway about choosing the most accurate and precise words for the job all the time – or misunderstanding a meaning. However there should be less leeway for a writer. A writer, once again, not merely someone who has written something (just as “a painter” is not merely “someone who put something on canvas one time” or “someone who does lots of paint by numbers” and “a musician” is not the same as “some jackass making everyone’s ears bleed with their toy recorder”, but rather “someone who practises music, professionally or as a hobby”).

Moreover, anyone who calls themselves a writer should at least try to spend a little time making sure that they – in the excellent words of Mark Twain – always “Use the right word, not its second cousin”. After all: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

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Posted by on December 18, 2015 in On Writing


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