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That’s what I said, but it’s not what I meant

Sometimes the words that come out of my mouth don’t exactly match the meaning I had in mind. Pretty often, if I’m honest.
When you see a literal, accurate transcription of what someone said, it can be surprising how little sense it makes. Even when it is said by an extraordinarily wise person with a gift for articulating ideas.
In his blog The Actual Pastor, Steve Wiens includes a direct quote from Irish poet John O’Donohue taken from an interview shortly before his death in 2008:

And I love what my old friend Meister Eckhart, 14th-century German mystic wrote. One day I read in him and he said, “There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” And I really thought that was amazing, and if you cash it out, what it means is, that in — that your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.

All those spare “and”s, the backtracking and reframing – it’s typical of how we all speak. On the page, it’s not pretty. That’s why the sensitive editing of spoken words when they are to be used in written form is so important.
Many journalists would be horrified by the idea of tampering with a direct quote. As a book editor, I’ve had numerous battles about that. My view is that when you write a book (as opposed to an ephemeral news report), there is an expectation from your interview subject and your reader that the words will be polished to render them both clear and pleasant to read, without altering substance or style.
What’s your take on it?

2 replies
  1. Robin
    Robin says:

    I tend to ramble. My husband, a newspaper editor, reads my blog and often shakes his head. I guess it depends on the context. I am fully aware that rambling is my blog style. If I were to write a book, I believe you are right as far as the kind of editing that would have to take place. Do you believe the audience plays a part in the kind of editing that is required? Your blog is like reading a very clean book. Do you still feel that your voice is being heard in the way that you would like to convey it?

  2. Sally Collings
    Sally Collings says:

    God bless the ramblers! Robin, I love that we all have a different style in our writing. And you’re spot on in saying that context matters too. I think blogs tend to be looser, more casual in style than books. Because my primary work is in books rather than blogs, I guess I do stick to a bookish mode. But I don’t feel it’s something I’m striving for: it comes naturally and comfortably to me.

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