Sep. 27th, 2016

justira: A purple, gender-ambiguous unicorn pony in the style of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (lady business)
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What's a Word Worth is a new column by [personal profile] justira about the mechanics of writing. In this column, I examine the actual writing of every single book I read, focusing on how it conveys meaning and whether the writing works for me as an editor, reader, and fellow writer. My analysis will be based on the Peircian semiotic framework, explained in the first few posts of the column.

"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference."
—June Jordan, Technical Difficulties (1994, p. 197)

So! New column! And I thought I'd start things off by digging into how words mean.

What exactly do I mean by that? What does it have to do with evaluating writing? Well, when I write the word "cat", how do you know what I mean? What kind of cat do you imagine? What would an alien imagine? Or, when I say "this is blue, that is red", how do you know what "this" and "that" refer to? (Or what "blue" and "red" are, for that matter!) When a writer writes, "this surgeon is a butcher," how do you get the idea that this surgeon is really bad at their job, rather than actually being someone who cuts up animal meat for food on the side? Metaphor is a powerful writing tool, and I can tell you how it works.

Language can also be used to signify belonging to a group and draw group boundaries — think of the boundaries drawn by use of the word "queer". Who's allowed to use that word? To refer to themselves? To others? Who objects to the term? Are they part of the same groups? Language is a key resource for asserting and realizing group identities to achieve social and political goals(1). Similar mechanics in turn can be used by authors to signify belonging to a certain school of SFF, or by characters in dialogue to show they belong to specific groups or classes.

My degree is in linguistics, and I wrote my undergraduate thesis on semiotics(2), which, put plainly, is the study of how words mean; this background informs all of my thinking as a writer, reader, and editor. I plan to use this column to analyze writing, and I wanted to let you into my process and background. Plus, I think this stuff is fascinating. So! The first few posts in this column will rehash the first chapter of my thesis for a general audience, and I will refer back to the concepts and terminology when I finally dig into analyzing authors' writing.

Just to be clear, you don't have to read through all this semiotics stuff to understand my breakdowns of other people's writing. However! I want to share this stuff because (a) it's my passion and I find it fascinating and (b) I find it to be a useful framework for analysis. So if you're curious, read on!

First, some housecleaning: some of you may have heard of semiotics before, or semiology. This was almost certainly the dyadic framework of Saussure. The semiotics I'll be covering here is the — in my ever so humble and biased opinion — much more interesting and accurate triadic framework of Peirce. I'll explain the differences later, but just wanted to be clear up front: this isn't the signifier/signified Saussure stuff you may have seen before.

Now we're ready to go!

Read more... )


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