Not Mere Words

A number of readers and editors have asked me about the pains I take in choosing words for my books and articles. Let’s say that it was a revelation that has prompted me to work so hard to create the right word combinations. It came to me one day while I was looking at samples in a paint store. I was looking at paint chips for just the right sort of white. The store must have had twenty or more versions of white—everything from antique white to Arizona white. The winter white intrigued me because it almost looked a bit blue in the store’s light. The idea is that each name is supposed to express the nuance of colorto create a picture in the viewer’s mind.

Many people see words as text. However, text is an abstraction of a wordthe presentation of that word on paper or on screen. Words are expressions of ideas. A word creates a picture of an idea or object in the viewer’s or hearer’s mind. Using the right word transfers an idea precisely from your mind to the mind of someone you want to share an idea with. Consequently, like the paint samples in the store, the nuance of words you choose is important if you want to maintain the clarity of the idea. Winter white isn’t the same as antique white, much as submitting to someone’s authority isn’t the same as acquiescing to someone’s authority. You’ll find both words on the same page in a thesaurus, but they’re different. There is a nuance of difference in the meaning.

There is another important lesson you can learn from paint chips. When you place a winter white chip next to a blue chip, the blue in winter white stands out clearly. However, place the same winter white chip next to a red chip and suddenly winter white looks more white than blue. The context of the paint chip has changed. Likewise, the subtle meaning of a word changes in relation to the words around it. You must consider the context of the word in order to understand its true meaning. In fact, most dictionaries include multiple meanings for a word in order to convey this sense of context.

However, a word is an expression of an idea and not the idea itself. Both the writer and the reader must understand the word in order for the transference of an idea to take place. When the writer and reader have the same understanding of the word, the transference is clear, but it become less clear as the understanding of the two diverge. When a reader doesn’t understand a word, there isn’t any transference at all. Consequently, a well-read author could use terms that a reader doesn’t understand, with the result that reader is confused, not educated or entertained. So, better authors define unusual terms in context, to help readers understand the term and still derive the nuance of meaning the author originally intended.

Technical writing is perhaps one of the more difficult mediums when it comes to word choice. An author needs to convey ideas precisely, which means that a significant range of word choice is both warranted and necessary. However, in order to educate the broadest range of readers, the author is necessarily limited by the need to simplify the text, so as many people as possible can understand it. This dichotomy presents the author with a serious dilemma that editors can sometimes make worse by insisting only on accuracy or only on simplicity, without considering the art behind the writing. (A good editor supplies alternative terms that the author can choose from in order to retain clarity without increasing complexity.) The need to convey ideas clearly in a form the reader can understand is one of the reasons I use beta readers to help refine the content of my books. Beta readers act as a sanity check by helping the author determine which words truly are beyond the average reader’s understanding.

All this leads to a practice that I’ve had since the day of my vision in the paint store. I learn a new word each day. In fact, I use two sources: A.Word.A.Day and Dictionary.com. Both sources send a new word to my e-mail each morning and I choose the word I want to learn that day from them. I may not use all of these words in a book, but the words do expose me to new ideas that will appear at some time in my books. Words are expressions of ideasthe more you learn, the more ideas you possess. What is one of your favorite words? Have you ever found yourself unable to convey an idea because you lack the appropriate word? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.