Good texts, just like good conversations, are the ones that change you. You are transformed after having read them: you either know something more, learned something new, or have decided what to do next, how to solve a problem.
I use good here for something very basic, that is “able to serve its purpose”. In the case of texts, the reason for which they exist above all, is to transfer meaning. To convey a message, opening a door to yet another type of understanding.
Understanding as transformation
When the type of understanding, a text points to, flies over the barrier of misinterpretation, it successfully reaches the other side – adding, subtracting or transforming their state.
For that transformation to take place any writing is to start not only with the writer’s (the sender of the meaning) intent, but also with the situation of the person on the other end of the text, their language and their paradigms of meaning and understanding.
Graeca sunt non leguntur
When Medieval monks, reading Latin texts, saw anything written in Ancient Greek, they put Graeca sunt non leguntur (“These are Greek [words], [they] cannot be read”) in the margin and moved on.
That is how we operate. We ignore that data we don’t understand. Unless we have a really good reason to spend time, focus and energy to attempt to decipher the signal in a language that speaks to us.
All texts are created to convey particular meaning. The case when this meaning cannot be understood does not make the text meaningless. It only makes it, in the best scenario, easily ignored.
When you fail to use conventions, shared language and values, miscommunication and misinterpretation are seeded. The most abstract to start from is to know the language that the interpreter interprets.
Just like Greek letters meant nothing to the medieval monk (no matter how sophisticated meaning was to be transferred through them), what means for me, can make no sense for you. You can never pass a message across unless your text is not built on common grounds.
Texts that just talk and talk and talk, and say nothing, or nearly nothing
The moment we, as creators, forget that text, above all, is woven to transfer meaning, another seed of disconnect is being planted. When you weave a text around a negligible amount of meaning, you fail to win the trust of the recipient and therefore their attention.
When we use texts to deserve the attention people give us, we better make sure the meaning transferred will be worth the effort and the resource exhausted. As Johnathan Colman of Facebook said in an interview with Ann Handley (cit. Everybody writes, Chapter 5):
… thoughtful writing that’s appropriate to what the audience needs […] A listicle of 14 Cats Who Look Just Like Elvis ain’t gonna work when someone needs to figure out how our product works
It’s simple: nobody want to listen to texts or:
Who can talk and talk, and talk
And just say nothing
Or nearly nothing
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing
It is only when we use text as a vehicle to pass on (and create) meaning in a way that fosters, provokes and inspires understanding, that the full potential of the written piece unfolds.
Then, it joyfully (please, click play on the jazz piece to hear the meaning of the word) succeeds in enriching the web (of life) with:
- newly connected dots
- expanded field of relationships
- effectively transferred meaning
What really helps texts connect to a broader spectrum of understanding is the above mentioned rhythmic feeling of the swing. We are intuitive, sentient beings and we need logic and relevance as we need flair.
It’s hard to reverse engineer flair, but it’s easy to create it intuitively when you really care about the person on the other side of the medium and keep in mind that:
- Meaning is created in the interaction
- Meaning is contextual
- Meaning takes all kind of forms
Meaning, first and last, beats in a swirl, a swing, in a vortex of a shared life, within the fabrics of a shared understanding. And sometimes, we are lucky, in the texts we’ve tried to catch that swirl into.
Texts are living organisms
This is a project part of Chronotext – a growing collection of software experiments exploring the relation between text, space and time – http://chronotext.org/ [Big thanks to David Kutcher for that find]
Good texts, now that we went through this journey together, I can tell you, not only transform, but they themselves are open to transformation, feeding, carrying and transferring that ever elusive thing we call meaning with ruthless open-mindedness.
Open takes effort, devotion and willingness to accept the morphing identity of all things related to your text, including your own morphing identity. As every text starts and ends in and with another text and we are never-ending stories reaching out to find possible continuations…