Literature is the art-form of language, and words are its tools. As a painter uses paint, as a musician uses musical instruments, as a sculptor uses stone-and-chisel, so a writer uses words.
Words have a definite meaning. That is the first point every writer must address — though of course not every writer answers that question as I just have.
In fact, it’s become fashionable to say that language is arbitrary and definitions are, at best, approximations. Indeed, many writers accept these tenets without even realizing that they’ve accepted them and without any regard whatsoever for the fact that it’s not actually possible to write clearly unless you know the meaning of the words you’re using.
If you don’t know the meaning of the words you’re using, your writing will be unclear, and readers will not grasp your intent.
Clarity is the number one priority in all issues of writing style.
It is certainly true that language evolves, and that words develop nuances and new meanings. This is natural and it is good.
This natural process does not, however, negate objectivity, but just the opposite: the evolutionary process of language is gradual, so that at any given period, the words you’re using do possess a definite meaning.
If a word does not possess a definite meaning, it’s a non-word (and there are examples of these: “postmodernism” being one of them).
What I’ve just described is the place from which every writer must proceed: Words possess a definite meaning. That is the beginning. This point is critical to note, because it’s the foundation upon which the rest of all literary knowledge is built.
But to fully understand the nature of words, we must ask ourselves next: what are words, exactly?
Words are what philosophers call abstractions. Abstractions are the human method of grasping things in nature. Our brains work by means of abstractions — i.e. concepts — which are, in essence, words.
For instance, when as a child you first discovered the meaning of the word “pencil,” you had to at some point be shown what in actuality a pencil is — i.e. this object. Once you learned that that’s what the word “pencil” referred to, the word was absorbed and retained by your brain, so that thereafter when you heard or saw the word “pencil,” you knew automatically what a pencil was. You grasped the actual thing in reality — this is a pencil — and that knowledge paved the way for you to differentiate it from, for example, a pen, or a crayon.
That, in a nutshell, is the uniquely human method of learning, which language empowers us with.
Thus you yourself learned to use the word pencil in a meaningful way: The sentence “I write with a pencil” became for your mind not an unintelligible string of words, but denoted an act that you understood.
That very process which I’ve just outlined is, in abbreviated form, the process we all must go through in learning every single word we know.
The art of writing is this same process in more intensive form.
Why is this important?
Art by definition is communication — communication between the artist and the audience. If it’s not communicable, it’s not art.
If in your literature you reject the notion that language is definite, you will not only confuse and frustrate your readers, but worse: you will confuse and frustrate yourself, because you won’t know the meaning of the things you’re trying to communicate.
And that is why intelligibility is the hallmark of good art.
12 Responses and Counting...
This is so interesting! As an artist, (graduated in Art from UW- Madison) you make such a great point. When I first started writing, this is exactly how I thought of it, only in a more subconscious way. I would imagine a scene in my head and then try to “paint it” with words. Your post puts what I have been trying to do into a clearly stated form and gives me a lot to think about.
In 100 word flash fictions, I am limited to the amount of words I can use to set up the story and move the protagonist through a space usually to a cliffhanger. Through that exercise (every Friday), I find myself choosing the most precise verbs to get across my meaning and yet it is a blog, I don’t spend days on one post and afterward, I can see room for improvement. Your post makes me think that I should take the exercise one step further and update the post after improving on it. Even if no one comes back to read.
We live in a time where definitions are one click away.
I will be more “conscious” of my word choice in the future!
Thanks for this!
“Even if no one comes back to read”?
Susie, I’ll always come back to read.
Thanks so much for the retweet, and thank you for dropping by.
Terrific post and topic! My brother is an artist, with paint as his medium. I’ve often been awestruck by the fact that he can create such cool visual works…and we have the same genes?? 😉 At his last show, I realized that he and I both create stories–his with paint on canvas, mine with words on paper. Perhaps we artist-folk aren’t so unlike after all.
Hi August. It’s good to see you again. I must confess that I’ve always secretly envied people like your brother who can paint and draw — and yet what you say is true: all artists have something fundamental in common: a knack for making the abstract concrete.
I’ve been really enjoying your author interviews.
Thank you for dropping by.
Art is definitely communication and I am very much aware that the proper word in our writing can make a major difference in understanding the concept we convey. However, I wonder what your thoughts are regarding poetry: Would you agree that in poetry, the “connotation” of a word (ie, the “feeling” that word evokes) is often more successful in conveying the message? With this in mind, don’t you agree that it is still the “precise” word selected that evokes that clarity, whether it is the actual dictionary definition or not.
Also, why do you say “postmodernism” is a word that does not have a definite meaning? To me, it means a literary trend following “modernism” that is a little off the wall and wacky but still produced some major writers. What say you?
Hi Sue. It’s nice to meet you. I definitely agree that connotations are every bit as important as denotations — and not just in poetry. Language is vital and complex — a living organism — and the meaning of a word not only should but must include the word’s connotations, as well as its denotations, which is one of the reasons the lexicographer’s job is never-ending. But none of this in my opinion precludes objectivity. Precision in language must take into account all the things that words connote. (“That was a bad song.” “Is that bad meaning bad, or bad meaning good?”)
I say that about postmodernism because the distinguishing characteristic of postmodernism is in the dispensing of definitions. Why? Definitions presuppose a firm and comprehensible universe, which postmodernism explicitly rejects. The word postmodernism is a rubber word that can be stretched to fit virtually anything imaginable. In the language of one of postmodernism’s high priests Michel Foucault: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of — or against — Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.” Why? According to Foucault again: “Reason is the ultimate language of madness.”
Thank you for dropping by.
Hello there, Ray,
Yes, I concede your point about language in the postmodern world. Since Reason, Truth and Knowledge are (mere) tools of language, they cannot be mistaken for the Absolute; in fact, there are no absolutes, no “meta-narrative,” only individual truths, individual narratives – in the postmodern world. Thanks for the discussion.
Thank you, Sue. I love when people just drop by.
Wonderful! But don’t you agree that (Art is a product of human creative activity?)
Yes, Suleiman, I agree with that — or, at any rate, I have no serious disagreement with it.
Thank you for dropping by.
It seems a little strange to me that while the process of writing is described using a classic structuralist example, the crucial literary term itself is missing from this piece. It seems to me, that to delve upon what art is or isnt, we must identify the influences on definitions. That, as well, is clearly structuralist/post-structuralist.
Hello Kirti Suri.
The reason that term is missing from this piece is precisely that the writer does not regard it as crucial. Just the opposite, in fact.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for dropping by.