Although attributed to semanticist Alfred Korzybski in 1931, “the map is not the territory” is poetic in its perpetual relevance.
Among its other subtleties, the metaphor emphasizes the gap between representation and what it seeks to represent. The gap is necessary: Without it, a representation is neither useful nor meaningful. (A map representing territory in a one-to-one correspondence would cease to be a helpful map.)
Of course, we make choices when we represent something. When making a map, for example, our choices are informed by what we choose to focus on. Our choices are also informed by the needs we seek to meet, by our particular point of view, and by our sense of what our fellow wanderers require.
The map is not the territory can be a liberating expression for writers striving to represent “the truth.” It reminds writers that there is—and should be—a gap between the vast territory they explore and the way-finding they offer in their book.
This gap is not just a product of form but of function. After all, maps, aren’t only representative: They’re operative, too. As Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther writes in When Maps Become the World: “[Maps] also function within our behaviors, our institutions, and our conscious and unconscious understanding of phenomena. Maps are not solely static, general, and abstract.”
Ultimately, that the map is not the territory should comfort every writer: There will always be space between what is and what is represented. There’s no need to eliminate that space. Indeed, the reader requires it to build a bridge to guide them into new territory.