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Levels and difficulties of meaning

Part of what should excite a student of words and their manipulation, which is what reading and writing is all about, is that meaning (intended and interpreted) is in no way an easy or obvious exercise. What does that mean? It means there are as many ways to read or "take" the meaning of texts as there are people to read it. And does that mean there should be no rules then? Or that meaning is just subject to the preparation of the reader to encounter the text?

In some ways yes—technical discussions are meaningless to untrained readers—but for the most part, of course we have to use "common" language and expressions in order for anybody else to have any clue about what we are saying.

If you think about it, words are, in their simplest use, tools to communicate something from one person to another. In fact, without that need to communicate, there would be no need of language. Then one should consider that if you are wanting to communicate, a number of questions should arise:

1. What exactly is it you are trying to communicate?
2. What response do you desire from this communication?
3. What are the limits of your communication—what do you not want to say, and who do you not want to say it to?
4. All things considered, what is the best way to communicate what you have to say?

We are used of course to just knowing how to say things, and to be understood more or less as we intended, when we talk to family and friends, in person or texts or online. It seems easy, doesn't it? You don't have to think about it.

But at the same time, we are all aware that it is really easy, after all, to be misunderstood, even by people we think are the most likely to just "get" what we are talking about.

When we are writing for people who do not know us, even if the writing is informal, we have to take special care to limit ourselves to language or ways of saying things, that will be clear to most readers. That is because the level of meaning we are likely to communicate to these impersonal readers, is less deep and developed than we might have with a good friend. A stranger, for example, is usually not really interested in having us share personal details of our lives with them, especially not if our writing is intended to tell them about something of general interest.

This distinction, between personal and impersonal writing, can be difficult to learn for people who are used to writing personal messages (for example, on Facebook), to people who read them precisely because they want to know how the writer is getting along in his life.

The more formal style of academic or professional writing, on the other hand, can seem at first dry and boring, because it is intentionally impersonal. But this "dry" characteristic lends itself to communicating about topics which are just as capable of being interesting to a much broader range of readers.

The bottom line in these considerations is the one key to writing well, is to THINK about what you are trying to do, BEFORE you do it. When reading, we should approach a text assuming the writer has done this—although this may not be the case—and seek clues affirming this to be the case. If we find the text is a thoughtful exercise, it is helpful for our comprehension to respect the text by giving the same commitment of thought to reading it.