I met Dana Ford on a LinkedIn forum, but it wasn’t until we interacted on Twitter that I really got to know him. In fact, when my dad’s illness was diagnosed, Dana was the first person in my email to ask if I was okay. He was quick to offer a shoulder and a sympathetic ear.
He’s also an accomplished tech writer who has seen plenty of writing mistakes. He’s here to remind us that it’s about the words first. Without them, we have no profession.
It’s time we paid attention to how we apply them.
Words Mean Things
by Dana Ford
Yes, the title “Words Mean Things” is an absurdly obvious comment to those of us who throw those pesky words together to earn a living, but maybe we should take a deeper dive here and examine our trade and our own impact with those pesky words a little more closely.
Of course, the first thing we examine when choosing our words should always be our audience. What level of understanding does our target audience have? Do we insult their intelligence by writing “see the cat” or do we confuse them by writing “scrutinize the Felis Domesticus?” Or if we’re doing children’s material, we may be best served by saying “see the cat” and adding an accompanying illustration. It’s all about the audience and how to best make them understand our words.
Another consideration should be the level of detail we include. Too much information, or not enough? That is a question we must always ask. Does it serve the audience best to read “Smith opened the door,” or do they need to know that “Smith got up from his chair and walked 10 paces to open his door made of sturdy oak?” Maybe we even need to go for a bit of entertainment, such as “Smith, edgy from the voices in his head, took slow, halting steps to reach the door which would prove to be the last barrier to total madness when he opened it.” This brings to mind a conversation from one of my first editing jobs long ago.The writer had written that “oil rushed to the valve.” Click To Tweet
I had to tell the writer our readers did not care if the oil rushed, trickled, dripped, lollygagged, or traveled at light speed, they just needed to know the oil went to the valve. Although it was a lesson they learned well, I secretly wondered to myself if more people would read their manual if the “oil rushed majestically” someplace.
What is the point we’re trying to get across? This is an area where many writers should be somewhat the same. At the risk of dating myself, this is where the Joe Friday approach of “just the facts, ma’am” should be employed. Not opinion, just the facts. I confess one of my greatest pet peeves is the modern journalist. No, I’m not talking about the journalists who will be visiting this blog, as I’m sure everyone that associates with this blog owner is of the highest integrity, I’m talking about many of the journalists employed by the national media. You know the ones. You always know what they’re writing is slanted to their way of thinking, not what actually happened. I’m not pointing to a certain side of politics, either, because there’s plenty to go around on both sides. It’s becoming more of a challenge to find the real journalists with integrity out there in the electronic sea of opinion.
Okay, it’s time to get down off my soapbox and continue. If you’re not doing news, but entertainment, the rules are similar. At the risk of boring everyone else, I’ll use an example from my own work of covering drag racing. Sure, the simple fact is the car leaves the starting line and goes (hopefully) to the finish line, but who wants to read that? This is where the entertainment angle of mentioning the billowing tire smoke, the glistening paint job, the wheels up in the air at launch, or even the thrill of your humble correspondent having to run when the car didn’t leave straight off the starting line becomes necessary to grasp the reader’s attention. This kind of scenario is when you, as a writer, must use your words to paint a picture of what is happening to make the reader feel your reality in their own mind. It’s also where we must be careful not to lead the reader into an alternate reality. That should be left to the world of fictional novels.
How strong are our words? I confess to falling into this trap myself. After years of spewing forth hundreds of thousands of words in the technical realm, I suddenly realized my normal writing was now lacking the vocabulary and eloquence my words of the past had once possessed. It was time to exercise those old vocabulary muscles and break out new, exciting words and bring back some forgotten words that had been gathering mental dust! A current colleague of mine checks out the “word of the day” on a daily basis and if it’s an interesting word, we make a point of trying to use it in our daily conversation as much as possible. It’s a fun way to add to our palette of available language which is necessary to get our point across, not to mention keeping the ol’ noggin sharp at the same time. Otherwise, you may end up with readers having a minatory attitude towards our work (see what I did there?).
Of our many differing methods and styles and venues of writing, we, as writers, must always remember to weigh our words carefully, for they truly do “mean things.” If we’re diligent, our words can change the world for the better, or if we’re lazy with them, they can send us to the depths of obscurity. The more realistic goal though, one I’m sure we can all agree on, is for our words to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. That is the best meaning our words can ever have.
Writers, in what different ways have you had to amend your words to fit within the required style?
What are some of the more ridiculous examples of writing that didn’t match the audience or message purpose?