Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Our Writing is Better Than Other People's

As  a musician, I have a problem.

It's my own fault, really. And it goes all the way back to those childhood practice sessions I either skipped or muddled through until I'd done my time.

You see, when I play, what the poor folks forced to listen hear is nothing like the music I think I'm playing.

It's like the illusion that the moon on the horizon is much bigger than the same moon riding high in the sky. You might swear that it really does look bigger on the horizon, but if you take a picture of the moon in each position (taking care, of course, to keep the camera settings the same) and measure its size, you won't find any significant difference.

Fortunately, there's help for people with my musical affliction. It's called audio software. With a composition package I can set down the notes and refine them until what comes out of the synthesizer matches the music in my head. While this doesn't guarantee that another person will have the same emotional reaction to the music, it does guarantee that my lack of technical proficiency no longer creates a gap between what I intend and what they actually hear.

We have a similar but more subtle problem as writers. In this day, when the vast majority of writing passes through computers, the legibility of our writing is rarely a problem. We take it for granted that most people will see the same words we put down on the page. If they see the same words, they should understand the same things when they read those words, right?

Meaning arises from interpreting the words and the ideas you associate with those words. What may seem like a perfectly innocent statement to one person could have offensive connotations for another. We say reading is subjective--that readers bring their own baggage to the story--without truly understanding how deeply true it is. If you stop to think about it, it's a miracle that we understand each other as well as we do.

All of which is why we all think (though most of us are too polite to say it) that our writing is better than most other peoples: we know what our words mean when we put them down. With another person's writing, all we have to go on are the words on the page.

One of the reasons we might call other people's writing bad is if we can make no sense or get nothing meaningful out of it. It doesn't matter what they intended the words to convey. It only matters what you get out of them. This is why, no matter how certain you are of your writing's perfection, you need editorial feedback--you need to hear how other people react to your words.

The music in your head may be astonishing and sublime, but no one will ever know it if they can't hear the same notes.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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