I’m presently hosting cousins who are in town visiting, and we attended the evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I confess that I usually tune out during church readings and sermons—really, when anyone has been talking too long—and it’s that much harder to keep focus when my eye has a massive dome and intricate mosaics, sculptures, and paintings to wander about. A surreal kind of solitude even in a room filled with people.
In any case, because I’m visual and we had a program containing the readings and songs, I did catch this passage:
“If [the flute or the harp] do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle give an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” – from 1 Corinthians 14
Now, the context of this passage regards speaking in “tongues”—i.e., spreading God’s message in different languages that people may not understand without interpretation. Yet it got me thinking about language in general and the way people communicate with each other even within the same language that they all understand. This transports me back to the first days of school explaining to students why taking an English class is necessary—not as in learning the language itself, but, rather, learning all the possibilities of how to use that language. I told them that they could have the most brilliant ideas in the world, but it won’t mean anything if they can’t communicate them clearly.
For students, the technical ways to communicate are the starting point. [DISCLAIMER: My criticism is limited to those who butcher their first language only. My hats off to those who speak another language at any level, as it’s more than I’ve achieved.]
I could go on and on about how many times I caught text-message-ease infiltrating formal essays (yes, “u” instead of “you” appeared countless times) and how proof-reading is a lost art thanks to Spell-Check being taken for granted (need I mention the infamous “there”/”their”/”they’re” problem)? Maybe I’m just a stickler—after all, I’m not immune to such errors when I’m writing quickly, and naturally leave it to a teenage wisenheimer to bring to my attention the Cambridge study on spelling—but it becomes increasingly alarming to me when I catch more and more typos on menus, signs, and other messages in print. I don’t know if any of you WordPress users had the same issue, but I couldn’t get into my blog the other day because “Writes to access this site have been disabled.” Really?
But this isn’t what I mean to harp on (and I don’t want everyone whose stuff I read to fear my teacher’s red pen :)), so I digress…
“I decided that maybe what you do is write the book you want to write, in a way people want to read it.”
This lingered in my mind, and, while the ways in which people want to read a story may encompass several factors (e.g., engaging through suspense or pacing), I thought about how important a story’s overall readability is in the first place—i.e., the ease with which readers can comprehend what is written without having to read through a sentence three times before understanding what it’s getting at. This ended up echoed in my own sister’s words during her recent local TV interview (which I had to see on her blog before that modest little stinker even showed it to me!). Starting out in that oh-so soulful world of Finance like myself, when asked how she shifted gears from “boring” financial writing to creative writing, she responded that the former actually helped:
“One thing that was always pounded into me was, ‘This needs to be understandable to the clients,’ so [business writing helped me] for getting the message across and understandable to the reader. So as far as the passion and the creativity of the story, that part was kind of easy to just have, but to get it written down so that someone else would read it and feel and see the characters the same way that I wanted them to, [I go through a lot of editing] to just think of it from the reader’s point of view.”
I suppose that’s mostly what the “rules” are all about, ensuring that the vivid images and concepts in our minds are translated into words that recreate the thoughts in the reader’s own mind. This is the fundamental principle of communication, whereby the Sender relays a Message to the Receiver. If the Receiver does not understand the Message, the Sender has failed to communicate effectively. And, as Cities of the Mind puts it, we should relay our messages in a way the reader would best welcome them.
The English language is extremely word-rich, so we must take advantage of its possibilities, appreciate the options for syntax and structure, the varying degrees of meaning conveyed by carefully choosing among synonyms like “pretty,” “beautiful,” and “gorgeous,” and not speak into the air in haughtily intellectual or overly abstract ways (mind you, this does not mean dumbing it down either). A story is meant to be shared, so keep it clear, keep it accessible, and—just as importantly—keep it honest.
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity” – George Orwell