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Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say
By Deborah Greenspan
If the first rule of good writing has to do with expecting to rewrite, the second must surely be related to clarity, to saying what you mean. Ask yourself these questions: What do I mean? What am I trying to say? Why is it so difficult to twist this sentence into exactly the right shape, so that it resounds with meaning—my meaning? Nothing written is ever finished or complete until the reader understands what the author meant to say.
Here’s an example. I was listening to the radio the other day and the DJ asked a question. (Please note that this was my daughter’s station.) Anyway, his question was “If you saw your boss’s son smoking pot, what would you do?” After much snide laughter and silly banter, they came back with an answer from a caller. She said, “Who cares if he smokes pot?”
My question to my daughter and the two teenage boys in the back of the car was “What did she mean by this? Did she mean ‘who cares if he smokes pot; he’s nothing to me.’ Or did she mean, ‘who cares if he smokes pot; there’s nothing wrong with smoking pot.’ Or did she mean ‘who cares if he smokes pot as long as he’s not polluting my airspace’?” Or did she mean something else?
The kids were surprised and interested in my question. My daughter thought that the woman meant that the boss’s son was nothing to her, but my nephew thought that the caller meant that there was nothing wrong with smoking pot. This ambiguity sparked a discussion that lasted all the way home. It started with the boss’s son and led to religion and politics. Someone even noted that some people, like politicians and con men, might deliberately be ambiguous, letting people fill in the blanks at will, but that’s the subject of another essay.
Although the radio show was a verbal exchange, it started me thinking about clarity, not just in speech but in writing. Good writing requires that when we write, we assume nothing. It’s essential to analyze our sentences and know all the ways in which they can be interpreted. Then we have to limit the sentence to saying exactly what we mean, so that our readers will get it. If the caller to the radio station had been concerned about really being understood, she might have said, “Who cares if he smokes pot as long as he’s not doing it by me.” Or “Who cares if he smokes pot? Pot probably helps him cope.” Or “Who cares if he smokes pot as long as he stays away from my kids?” Then, instead of thinking we know what she means, we really will.
Good writing demands even more stringent clarity. The reader has no clue to the meaning other than the words. No tone of voice, no facial or body expression. Everything in good writing depends on the words, so the words must say what you want them to. This is accomplished by 1) always using the exact right word. Don’t substitute words that sound good just because they sound good, and always check the dictionary if you’re not 100% sure; 2) not using a lot of extraneous and unnecessary words that make the sentence difficult to understand. Good writing also requires that you say what you want to say directly, usually in active sentences. There’s a lot more to good writing, but if you start with clarity and making sure you say what you mean, you’re on the right track.
Learn more from Deborah’s book on good writing: The Secret Sex of Books published by Breezeway Books.