“You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”

Or, Editorial Blind Spots, Part 2: Over-education

My post about a romance author’s use of “hallucinogenic” to describe cannabis garnered a comment suggesting I check the definition of the word, because it has a clinical definition that would encompass any altering of mind or perception, not strictly the perception of things that are not there.

I am waiting for confirmation of that clinical definition, but say the commenter is correct and that is used in psychology and psychiatry:  the narrow band of professionals who are familiar enough with that technical definition are not the target audience of a general fiction book.  The average reader is going to read hallucinogenic as causing hallucinations; even if they check their shelf dictionary or dictionary.com, that will only confirm their definition. And then the writer looks either ignorant or like she used the wrong word, when in fact she might have used that precise word for its technical meaning quite educatedly.

So this made me realize another editorial blind spot–that of being too expert in a field to communicate clearly with a layperson.

Philosophy runs into this problem all the time. It can be impossible to hold a coherent discussion without first defining terms, because often in philosophy common words are redefined or narrowed to some tangential sub-definition of what they are to the world at large, and if you use the words but mean something different than the person you’re talking to, the two of you end up speaking at cross-purposes. For hours.

Storytelling is the same way. I love precise language. I relish it. But I try to keep in mind the context of words for my audience. There have been times I’ve used a less-than precise word in order to make my meaning more clear, because the precise word was too easily confused for an entirely different word which could also have fit the context but would not have been what I meant.  The first order of business for any writer is clarity–instant readability, as my style mentor used to put it–and sometimes the most precise word is not actually the best word to use.

So as a writer, if you have particular areas of technical expertise, you have to be aware of how meanings that might be self-evident to you will sound to your readers. I am not suggesting you should never use the narrow technical term, but use it…advisedly.  Make sure it is a standard sub-definition in the type of dictionary a general reader might pull out if they question your usage, or make sure there is a context for the technicality of your usage to make it clear you didn’t pick the almost-right word out of ignorance.

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