Why Language Matters

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 “Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.” 
– Rita Mae Brown

Writing is editing. You know that. You accept that.

But do you love it?forest path I’m serious. It’s easy to love writing, even when you don’t. But editing? Who loves that?   

And yet, if you plan to continue your career as a writer, it may be time to learn.

When people ask me about editing as a career, I often ask them this question: Do you like language? I think the editor is someone who has made that transition from appreciating language as a spectator, to not only enjoying it as a player, but now engaging the grand game of words as a coach, a manager, or even a referee.

Editing isn’t merely about grammar rules and knowing the parts of speech. It isn’t just how best to arrange the words for maximum impact. It’s all of those things, but it also involves a deeper understanding of human nature, the subtle preferences of readers and especially the particular interests and needs of the specific audience one is speaking to. Anyone can spout off rules about verb tense agreement or dangling modifiers, but the more advanced skill is knowing why these things matter–and why and when they don’t.

“Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual.”
– Steven Pinker

Last week, I talked about how to overcome knee-jerk reactions to strong language as a way to employ words more powerfully. My firm conviction is that wielding language is a power–quite literally–and possibly, the greatest power we writers have. And as such, I believe we’ve got to start learning to risk speaking dangerously to reclaim and renew our listeners’ understanding of language. Frankly, even a cursory look around proves there’s no time for skirting this issue any longer.

So this week, I want to go straight to an idea that the invisible work of editing is arranging words to reveal readers to themselves.

A polished sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book conveys a clear message, an intentional revelation. And the way to having that effect is a proper edit which carves out truth, truth that heals readers’ misconceptions—about the world, themselves, God and others.

Too many people, and I believe Christians especially, either don’t understand or don’t believe that. And I don’t know why. (My basic theory is that some folks think only God’s “original revelation” is the unaltered truth, and therefore editing is unnecessary and/or damaging. Can’t God inspire an idea and also grow and inspire us further through the editing process?)It’s true. Editing isn’t always easy—in fact, it rarely is. But how else do you expect to help others find themselves in a story so new yet so familiar, and experience that though somehow they forgot, they’ve always known this incredible revealed truth?
There is a language so pure it knows your very mind–it just is so rarely mastered.
Yes, if you are called to write, you are a lover of words. Yes, it is possible for you to seek and find this mastery of language. You know great books are not simply written. They’re rewritten. They’re edited. And edited again.
Like counselors, good editors use questions to guide the initial process. And then like surgeons, they find the phrases that bring out the best qualities and efficiently solve the confusion and dullness that plagues us. Good language isn’t flashy. It isn’t quick. It’s effective. It’s challenging. And it can be a struggle to uncover.
But it’s worth the effort. Because it’s what love requires.
It’s always surprising and thrilling to watch a book take shape out of the clay. The frustration, the hard work, the struggle, it’s all eventually forgotten. But the beauty and power of a well-crafted story or well-stated idea remains.
Without working through all the considerations and possibilities, a book wouldn’t eventually find it’s shape. It wouldn’t have any value. Don’t be cowed by the work. Unstoppable ideas are not born, they’re fashioned into language by a commitment to speak with power and precision. Every important idea required effort to be said, some struggle to chisel it out of all the possible words, and a commitment that’s your birthright and heritage.
Why does language matter? Because when you speak your inspired words as the culmination of all you are, you demonstrate a freedom that others long to find. You show how language frees us by allowing us to name and define our world. And it’s a truth that requires discovering yourself.
So commit to the work of editing and working with your language and forget all else. When it’s hard and unclear and requiring so much time, remember this is where the book first shows you yourself. You’ll find what you initially intended to say, maybe what you thought you already said, and ultimately what you must give readers—it’s there in the love of this gift of language. It’s always there.
Love it and love the learning, the growing more aware and adept with your basic tools, and the appreciation of your reader’s intelligence. And show them that great respect of your commitment to say it all, best and clear and true.
Will you show readers themselves by speaking your words most effectively? For a writer, what could be more fulfilling than that?
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
For the higher purpose,
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10 thoughts on “Why Language Matters”

  1. Thank you for the inspiration, Mick! Sometimes the pursuit of excellence wearies even the most avid word lover. I needed this reminder to dig in and enjoy the process of word crafting.

  2. Feeling validated for how l picky I am ‘re word choice. I appreciate many of your thoughts here: that language frees us by allowing us to name & define our world and that a proper edit carves out truth. I would like more elaboration on what you mean by speaking dangerously.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Mick.

  3. Oh my. How beautifully you put into powerful words the longing in my heart. It is such a big thing to peel back the layers of my writing and extract the strength of it, that I often feel to small to accomplish the task. It’s about listening to the language all around us, and filtering it through our own creative gift. It comes out the same, yet unique – our words, but touched by Something bigger so they move and breathe. I need to listen more. Thanks so much, Mick

    1. Jan, your words reflect that love of language we share. Thanks so much for fanning the flame!

  4. I cherish the fact that early on, in creating the tabernacle, it was not the quickest (write one book per month) nor the most cautious, strictly adhering to the current formulas for making the most money workmen that were chosen. Rather, the search was for skilled workmen (women) to do the best they could.
    I take that as my challenge. Thanks for reinforcing the urge to do what I do as well as I possibly can, including (sob) cutting (and not pasting elsewhere) those lovely but useless displays of artifice, including also not settling for the words that first come to mind because I have to get this month’s book written.
    Dig deeper, tailor more snugly, sand rough edges, speak hard truth, trash the sloppier efforts, because, damn all all the lesser slop, This is for the Higher Purpose. Keep that banner where it is, my friend.

  5. I didn’t discover how much I love words until later in life. It has been a wonderful journey that is just beginning. Thank you for the inspiring words to keep going, keep writing and never tire of molding and shaping a new picture through the words we use.

  6. Most of us are not reading the Scripture in the original language. To think of any version of the Bible as not being edited is living in denial of the power God gave those who have chosen the words of translation that most of us read and refer to in our writing. It’s amazing really, and comforting, to see how impactful those word choices are. I know it’s the Bible, but we need to remember God isn’t holding out on us. He will help us to make our words impactful. When we (I) don’t put the mental work and labor into finding the words and the way to say them, and when we (I) don’t expect divine help, we’ve lost our reason for being. Thanks for the reminder of the greater call of crafting, rather than just putting words on a page. It should be a no-brainer, but it’s not.