Meaning Gap: The Line Between Funny and Failure

Posted October 31, 2013 by Amanda Shofner in Editing / 0 Comments


Alissa Vecchio and I created the hashtag #TortureThyEditor on Twitter to commiserate over the tedious and asinine tasks we do. When you have to spend an entire 1,000 word article removing the extra space between sentences, editing is far from glamorous.

We created #TortureThyEditor to be funny, not cruel or harsh or negative. It’s an outlet for us, in the same way you vent to coworkers or friends about stuff happening in your life.

When real life intrudes on your outlet

But after a particularly grueling morning of five blog posts and a string of #TortureThyEditor tweets (not all of them published), I realized I was gravitating into territory that was more negative than funny.

And so I wondered: where’s the line between funny and negative?

You could easily substitute just about anything for “funny” and “negative” here. Funny and offensive. Honest and cruel. Because the issue is between the intended meaning and the derived meaning.

What you mean and what your reader thinks you mean aren’t always the same. It’s the gap that creates so much miscommunication. If you’ve ever uttered, “But that’s not what I meant” or “I didn’t mean it that way,” you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Falling into the meaning gap results in injury

The line between funny and negative is wherever my Twitter followers choose it to be. Regardless of my intentions, my readers will think what they will about my tweet. Because I probably have followers who think any tweet under the hashtag #TortureThyEditor is negative and followers who think every #TortureThyEditor tweet is amusing. And every variation between those extremes.

As a writer, you’re responsible for closing the meaning gap as much as you can. Creating meaning relies on your shoulders, not the readers’. You’ll never close the gap completely. (Sorry. That’s the way language is.) But minimizing the chances of being misunderstood—or having your hashtag labeled as negative—is possible.

The first step is simply to be aware that your readers may not automatically know what you meant to say. How much of your writing is failing to hit its mark because your readers are reading something different than what you intended?

Your writing IS missing its mark (at least some of the time)

We depend on our writing in blog posts AND in our emails, our proposals, our sales pages, and anywhere we use language to convince or persuade. If you’re not aware of the meaning gap, you’re losing out.

And yes, the meaning gap is another reason for editors. Because you can’t edit your own work. Okay. You can edit your own work, but the quality of that editing is limited. You know what you meant to say. Even when you’ve been trained to consider all possible meanings, you’re blind to your own writing.

It’d be like a woman trying to cut her own hair. She’s never going to get an accurate look at the back of her own head. She = you. Back of her head = your writing. It’s why hair stylists get their hair cut by other stylists. It’s why I hire editors.

So that line between funny and negative? It’s the same line between the success and failure of your writing.

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