Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Essence of Writing: Saying What You Mean

In Fowler's Modern English Usage, (H. W. Fowler, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 1965) he explains that ambiguity "... misleads the reader only momentarily, if at all, but makes him think the writer a fool for not being able to say what he means." Fowler goes on to say, "... the purpose of this dictionary is to help writers to express themselves clearly and accurately ..."

Organizing ideas is the essence of writing, but when we talk about writing, our discussions usually focus on the how: rules, conventions, and techniques. We rarely pay attention to the what: having something to say that's worth saying so you can deploy all the rhetorical tools in the how toolbox to say it clearly.

Why do we avoid giving advice about the substance of someone's writing?

The practical answer is that the what of writing is really an editorial concern. Most of us who give writing advice usually have neither the time nor the expertise to critique a piece on its merits. And of course when we're talking about fiction we're picking our way through the swamp of subjectivity.

The tension between form and substance is an ancient one that likely goes back much further than Socrates' famous complaint about the schools of rhetoric that taught students how to win arguments without regard to the merits of the case. But form and substance are really two aspects of the same thing: if you have nothing to say or if you say it poorly it will mean nothing to your readers. Good writing begins with a clear understanding of what you mean to convey, and is demonstrated through your ability to say what you mean.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at
Image: Simon Howden /

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