Small Change, Big Difference

In our writing and many other areas of life changing a small detail or two can have big results.

Take a look at this picture…


Both pieces contain precisely the same number of rings in the same ratios and rows. It is a one ring difference in how expansion rings are placed that results in a circle or a pentagon; one ring to the left or right and you change the pattern. We do the same thing with the words and punctuation in our writing.

Perilous punctuation

This one is a classic I learned from my dad… Woman, without her man, is nothing. Woman, without her, man is nothing. We only  move a comma over one place and it makes a significant change in meaning.

Punctuation helps show how words are connected and flow into bigger ideas. Change one point of punctuation, even slightly, and you change the meaning of the words in the larger context. All of those commas, semi colons, and periods out there actually mean something. They control flow and order. They show how things are connected. Those parentheses, quotes, and dots of ellipsis mean stuff too. They can tell you when a thought is a side bar, another person’s, or trails off.

Punctuation is a powerful tool to be use with care. If you plagiarize or jump in to the world of contracts, a punctuation mark that is missing or in the wrong place doesn’t just affect how you ideas are presented it could cost you money.

It’s not just the punctuation either.

A small change in the words you use can change the meaning or the shad of meaning. This could come in the form of a different word, an additional word, an omitted word, or in some cases a word form (remember gerunds? They’re nouns, They’re verbs. How you use them changes the meaning).

In my masters thesis I studied differences in language use between people learning to read and their literacy tutors. The biggest difference?: The use of qualifiers, words that shape how and when something is meant and allow for an individual instance or situation to vary from a constant state. “I’m a happy person” versus “I’m usually a happy person”; one can only be a current or constant while the other is allowing for situational changes.

Adjectives are another case of words to choose carefully. is the shirt sky blue or turquoise. Would you say that the color of the (insert object here) purple or violet?  Is the lake your character just fell into cold, chilling or freezing. Choosing the right word can really set the description or create a different situation.

We can also think in terms of word order. Ok, the snake is red, yellow and black; are the red and yellow stripes together or the red and black. One is a king snake the other a coral snake; one is relatively safe, the other is poisonous.

This is why we take time…

Small changes can have major effects in terms of meaning. This is why we a writers need to put actual effort and thought into the words we use, and then go back and reread and edit. Sometimes the idea could be cleaned up or made stronger. Sometimes we weren’t as attentive or clear as we thought we were on the first pass. Sometimes that naughty little keyboard lets the wrong letter or symbol creep in.

Editing allows us to perfect the thought. To make sure that what we are writing is what we really want to say. It is one of the real differences between that killer prose and pointless junk (actually some days it’s why I like writing better than talking to people; when I write I can go back and see my goofs, if I just say it it’s out there and there’s nothing to be done).

Small changes can result in big differences in effect and meaning. In our writing (and life) the small choices we make can have real effects on the results we get. We need to take time and care to make sure we get them right.

I think that’s it for to day dear reader. Until next time, if you’re going to give, give your best.


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