Monday, September 19, 2011

The Many Levels of “Making Sense” (as illustrated by puking on an old lady)

One of the most problematic words or phrases I encounter is "making sense." As in:

ME: So what would you like me to look at today?
TUTEE: I want you to look at it and tell me if it makes sense.
ME: Okay, no problem. What particularly you are wondering about?
TUTEE: Well, like, does it, you know…make sense?
It seems like an easy enough request. We ask each other the same thing all the time. “Does what I just said make sense?” But when it comes to writing, “making sense” has multiple levels.
For instance, if I write “ME GO STORE. BARF ON OLD LADY,” you get a pretty good idea of what is going on. Despite the lack of articles and prepositions, you know I plan to go to a store somewhere and vomit on an unsuspecting elderly woman. It makes sense. But it’s horrible writing.

What makes it horrible? Wording. Lack of grammar. The words get the point across, but the way they do so is difficult to follow. Our goal in writing is not only to convey meaning, it is to convey meaning in an understandable, concise, and even aesthetic manner. In other words, it isn't enough for writing to just make sense. It has to make sense in an understandable, pleasing way.

There's more to it than that, though. Let's take it a step further. Say I write the sentence "I'm going to go to WalMart and puke on an old lady." Again, does it "make sense"? Sure. Does it get the point across in an understandable, grammatically correct manner? Yes. But questions linger. Why WalMart? Would Fresh Market or Smith's provide similar targets for my vomit? Just who is this woman? Is she someone I know and hold a grudge against, or is she simply a random, unsuspecting target of wanton public puking? And just why do I want to throw up on her in the first place?
And that takes us to the next level. To make sense, effective writing also needs to provide adequate background and explanation. A student can come in with a grammatically-correct paper, but if there is no explanation as to why the topic is important or what it has to do with anything else, it could be labeled as "not making sense."

The final level. Say I write this. "My mom is a greeter at WalMart. Once, when I was a teenager, she came to the Wendy's drive-through where I worked, made retching sounds, then spat cold oatmeal all over the wall as though throwing up while Dad took a picture. I'm going to go to WalMart with this cup of cold oatmeal and get her back." NOW you understand. It is told in a clear manner and adequate background is given. Now the writing "makes sense."

So there are different levels of making sense. What we're shooting for is the final example--writing that is grammatically correct while covering all its bases. I try to explain this to the tutees, but it doesn't always get across. I guess that sometimes in writing, the best we can do is puke on an old lady.


Blogger The Slap Happy Octopus said...

Why? For decency's sake, why would you ever vomit on an elderly woman?

12:14 AM  

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