A writer has to know the exact meaning of the words he uses.
Photo Credit: Alby Headrick
If you are unsure what words really mean, you can accidentally create some very humorous writing, change the meaning of a sentence, or confuse your reader. Take this sentence for example:
The prisoner was hung.
What is the error here? The word hung means suspended, but it is used for items and not for people. Instead the writer should have written ‘The prisoner was hanged.’ What happens is that the reader might be confused for a second what is actually going on. This might take him out of the story and ruin an otherwise emotional scene. There are many different examples and they can ruin a scene or even your whole story. What it does either way is that it makes you look like an amateur writer.
When I first started out writing fiction I’d simply write without giving much regard to the words I used. A big part of my vocabulary and the words I used came from reading fiction. What turned out to be a big problem for me was, that I had never bothered to look up the true meaning of words. I told myself I could figure it out via context and there was no need to actually look them up in a dictionary. This went well in most cases, but not in all. At times it made for some strange sentences like the above, at others for some really ridiculous ones.
The worst part though was that I never noticed it, until I actually shared my stories online looking for criticism. What happened was that people didn’t care for the story but instead humored themselves about my ridiculous choice of words. It was embarrassing and frustrating. All of this could have been prevented by just taking the time to look up what all the words I was unsure about actually meant.
Knowing the meaning is always important
I recently learned that not knowing the meaning of words not only creates problems for writers, but can be troublesome for everyone else as well. Some time ago I read a book about real estate and building up a successful mindset recommended to me by a good friend.
I was very surprised to find a chapter in the book that talked about the definitions of words and why it was important to know them.
In the book it was described that if two people have a different, subjective definition of a word it can lead to quite some problems in life. One example was about couples in which each partner had a different understanding of the world relationship. Another, direr example, talked about a large business error due to unclear word meanings.
It showed me just how important it is to know the meaning of words is.
Problems for the writer
Not knowing clearly what words mean can create big problems for a writer.
I am not only talking about the embarrassing mistakes that I mentioned above. What I am also talking is when a read is unsure or has to guess what words or whole sentences mean.
Writing is about immersion. Your reader wants to see your story for his inner eye and be transported into your story’s world. Nothing is worse to him than to be interrupted by misused words or unclear meaning. It is frustrating having to guess or look up what words or sentences really mean. It can go as far as the reader putting down the book if it happens to often.
As a writer it is not only important to know what each word you use means, but also to make sure your reader knows its meaning. You should take a look at your general audience and estimate what level of education they have. In general though, if you use specific vocabulary, that is necessary for understanding what is going, it should be explained in the story.
There are some writers like H. P. Lovecraft, who used a more ornamented and complex vocabulary as part of their style. In general though you should aim for a clear understanding for your reader. Your writing should never be ornamented by choice, instead it should be as easy, clearly and precisely as possible.
We all know this type of aspiring writer. It is the people that tries to impress people by intentionally using a complex vocabulary or many foreign expressions, without really knowing what the words actually mean. If the wrier doesn’t embarrass himself already by misusing words, he will just come up as pretentious.
It is often the type of people who write with a thesaurus and exchange all normal and easy words with complex alternatives. Characters don’t eat, they ingest, the word entrance hall is replaced by vestibule or they use foreign expressions. They try to show their expertise of language and their extensive vocabulary, but in the end most of them fail. As a rule of thumb, you should only use complex words or foreign expressions if they are necessary. If you do, their meaning should always be clear to the reader.
In the end I want to give you a few pieces of advice, when it comes to the meaning of words:
1. Always know the definition of words
I don’t mean you have to memorize an entire dictionary. When you don’t know the meaning of a word, make sure you are not misusing it. You should always look these words up to make sure you don’t make mistakes. Especially nowadays, most of us are working on a computer, so checking the meaning of words is done quickly and effortlessly.
2. Use simply and easy words
As a writer you need a big vocabulary. The reason is to make sure that you can express yourself as clearly and precisely as possible. It is a fact that you don’t know if your reader has as big a vocabulary as you do. Never use big or complicated words if you can use an easy one. Write as simple as possible. Your main goal has to be that your reader is understanding you.
3. Don’t be pretentious
Never be pretentious. It is a sign of an amateur writer who wants to bring attention to himself and impress the reader. Always make sure that if you use complex words or foreign expressions that they are absolutely necessary. If they don’t hold any extra meaning or are used to characterize someone, take them out.
4. Understand everything
When you are editing and rewriting your story, make sure that you understand everything you wrote. If, at any point, you are unsure about the meaning of a passage, sentence or even single word, look it up and make absolutely sure it is the right word. If not, replace it.
In the end there is not much to add here. It should be clear to you know how important the meaning of words is and what disastrous results not worrying about it can have.
Make it a conscious effort to yourself to make sure that you always check if you use the right word.