Elements of Critique: Meaning

In my work community, The Princess Bride holds an honored place in our geeky hearts. This often results in quotes at best, and renditions of entire scenes at worst.

One of my favorite lines comes from Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Yes, when critiquing someone else’s writing, I do look closely at meaning.

That may be as simple as a word used in the wrong way. When someone types “their” instead of “they’re,” it’s what the Air Force calls a word choice error. The word is not misspelled, but misused. It doesn’t mean what the writer thinks it means.

I saw this CNN quote in an article today: “…the horrors that fundamentalism can wrought on an individual.” In this tight job market, it’s good to know some editor positions should be opening up soon. Spell check won’t catch that error. ‘Wrought’ is a word, but it’s the wrong word. That’s an example of what I’m looking for when I critique.

Mistaken words are frequent because the rules of use can be complex and confusing. The judgmental grammar Nazi in me says “No, they’re not.” But there are different applications of intelligence in life that each require some study to get right.

The reason I go to a mechanic is because I barely know how to put oil into a car. In the same way I know very little about car engines, some people don’t have to worry about whether to use “effect” or “affect” in a sentence.

There are great resources online that explain the use of commonly mistaken words. And as mentioned before, if ever there is a doubt about how a word should be used, research it or reword it.

That said, I realize that probably all of us will use whatever word, right or wrong, with full confidence. We don’t use words when we are unsure about them. Our certainty creates blind spots, which is why we’re surprised when someone points out, like Inigo Montoya, that what we’re saying doesn’t mean what we think.

That outside objective viewpoint is critical, to help us see past our blind spots. (Obligatory “join a critique group” plug complete!)

And the outside view helps identify a bigger problem of meaning that might come up in our writing.

Meaning becomes a problem when what we’re writing doesn’t fit. When critiquing, I look for anything that doesn’t support or match up with the greater whole: sentences that don’t fit paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t fit the point of the piece. (Think useless scenes in fiction, useless facts in non-fiction.)

For example:

The seasons on Okinawa are not the same four seasons as in the temperate climate of the United States. When the US Government turned Okinawa over to Japan in 1972, the action upset many of the residents. Okinawa, like most tropical islands, has two seasons: the rainy season and typhoon season. Typhoon season lasts from about April through October, and the rainy season occupies the other months.

That second sentence takes me right out of the paragraph wondering why it’s even there. It doesn’t support anything related to the meaning of the paragraph. If this piece is about weather on Okinawa, that sentence doesn’t even relate to the whole article.

Writing well is about economy of words (though you wouldn’t know it from my lengthy diatribes). We can’t afford to include something that ignores, or worse, contradicts the main point of our piece.

Failing to consider meaning in writing will have a drastic negative effect on how our writing affects our readers. Before our writing gets put out there for readers to set before their eyes, we want to make sure they’re going to get the meaning we intend.

Otherwise, I fear I’ll hear that thickly-accented voice say: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my language. Prepare to die.”

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