Purpose, Meaning, and the Trouble with Words

Everyone knows that different words have different meanings. But the same word can also have different meanings, and different words can have similar, if not the same meaning. . . You can add a couple of letters to a word and its meaning changes, sometimes becoming the opposite of what it started out as, or put two or more words together and their meaning can change again. And none of that takes into account changes related to different groups of people!

Welcome to  the phenomenon known as the English language.

So as a writer, how do you navigate these treacherous walkways? How do you choose which words to use? First step: Realise the challenge is there. Sure, word choice depends a lot on the purpose, setting, and genre of what you’re writing: a historical work is going to include different language to that of a modern piece, even if they’re both mysteries. If you’re writing a romance it will most likely – but not necessarily – involve different word choices to that of a horror. But you don’t have to stick with the obvious. It’s like, just because you’re writing something set in modern times doesn’t mean you can’t use a wider vocabulary, or put old fashioned words in there. It all depends on the feeling/atmosphere/impression/character you want to create.

Myself, I don’t think there’s a quick and easy way to explain or to learn this, and certainly no one way is right! That would be like saying you’re not allowed to innovate, or write crossover books, or make up words. . . However, learning how to select the best words for whatever you’re writing is a major part of being a writer. And there are plenty of them out there. (Words, writers, methods, take your pick!) The best way to find your way: Get on and try. Write. Not only that, but try writing different things. Get a thesaurus or find one online, and now and again – or if a word doesn’t feel quite right – look it up and see what other choices there are. If you normally write mysteries, you could try putting in a character who only speaks in flowery poetry, add a scene straight from a gothic horror, or have a historical setting. Maybe it will help you discover something new. (If it’s terrible please laugh instead of crying and mark it up to experience – I’m only putting ‘could do’s’ out there!)

Use your imagination.

The trouble with this of course, is that you’re experimenting, and some experiments fail. Hugely. Massively. Impressively. Spectacularly. And you either keep trying, or you go back to what works. Either way you’ve learnt something.


*If you’re easily discouraged, please don’t read this next part*

Because here’s the thing, no matter how careful you are, whatever your intentions while you’re writing, someone will see or find something you never suspected was in your work. It happens all the time. Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ series got labelled by some as religious, and not just that but as portraying religion in a way they didn’t like. His response: I was just writing a good story. Other people see things you don’t. That’s why writer’s should get someone else to read their work. It’s not just personal bias, or over-familiarity with the work, but that fresh eyes see things anew.

It can happen for anything too, not just writing: Someone might plonk a chair in a room without a thought; others would see it as carefully placed because it went with the décor, because it gets the most sun in the evening, or because the energy was best there. Some people only see the religion in hymns and carols, and that’s why children were stopped from singing them in schools. I never saw them as that, but enjoyed them as songs with gorgeous tunes that I loved to sing. Shakespeare. When you study Shakespeare (or any other literary work) you’re told to always look behind what’s actually written and question, ‘what could this mean? What was the writer trying to convey?’ Poetry gets the same treatment.

This is no doubt assisted by the fact that the human brain likes to find familiarity in strange things, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It seems to me meanings are too, and whether there are deliberate messages, if the words have been painstakingly crafted to convey a particular impression, or if anything discovered is entirely accidental, it’s a good idea to remember that when you get right down to it, a cloud is just a cloud, an inkblot is just an inkblot, and a story is just a story, whatever else it might also do or mean. After all, maybe the author just wanted to write a good song/story/poem, the director to make a film about awesome aliens, someone put the chair down there until somewhere proper could be found for it only it never moved. Or there really could be a whole host of meanings just hoping to be discovered.

Unless you ask the creator you may never know, and maybe they won’t know for sure either.



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