A bit over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain made the famous remark that “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” At around the same time, Gustave Flaubert came up with his le seule mot juste [the only right word], which seems even more applicable in English than in French. After all, there are a million-plus words in the English language, and hardly any two mean exactly the same thing.
Those two famous quotes have been flung at writers and would-be writers for the last century, often with a smug certainty that no one would ever dare to argue with with them. I mean, it’s Flaubert! It’s Twain! And they agree! It would be hard to find anything more literarily respectable.
Nevertheless, I spent years being just a little uneasy about the whole notion of the need to find the perfect word, every time. It sounded good, but I didn’t trust it. Then one day I ran across a quotation from Ursula le Guin: “Flaubert has been set up as such a universal model, and his le mot juste has been made into such a shibboleth, that it’s salutary to watch the poor man founder in a quicksand consisting entirely of mots juste.”
“So,” I thought to myself, “this perfect right word thing isn’t something that works for everyone.” I felt relieved, but I wasn’t entirely sure why until a few days later, when I was pouring over my current chapter-in-process, struggling mightily with a recalcitrant sentence. I finally put down something or other as a placeholder and went to bed, figuring that if I got a good night’s sleep, I’d have a better chance at finding the really right way to say what I wanted. Lo and behold, morning came, and I looked at the placeholder sentence, and could not for the life of me see why I’d been in such a lather the day before, because it was perfectly fine.
I thought about that for a while, and realized that this happens to me at least half to three-quarters of the time. What is worse, sometimes I’ll work for half an hour trying to bring up that mot juste that I know is buried in my brain somewhere, and then a day or two later, it will suddenly come to me…and when I flip back triumphantly intending to replace the pallid, limp, totally wrong word I’d ended up using instead, I find to my horror that this word I’ve spent so much time and anxiety on is not the right word at all. Indeed, whatever I ended up using is much, much better, most of the time. That “mot juste” was only the perfect word in my imagination; if I’d been able to call it up instantly, I’d have seen that and gone on and not ended up wasting half an hour.
A novel is a lot of words, and most of them, quite frankly, aren’t anything special. You have to go a long way to make a big thing out of “the” or “and” or “is/was,” which are generally right at the top of everybody’s list of “most often used words.” Even if it’s true that you really can’t use anything else most of the time. Also, if you do get one word a little bit wrong in a 100,000 word novel (or in one of those 300,000 word monsters that are currently so popular), you’re talking 0.001%, and most people just aren’t going to notice (or if they do, they’ll figure it was a typo).
Right about then, I noticed that most of the people I knew who were pushing the whole mot juste thing were either poets themselves, or were people who gave poetry first place on their personal hierarchy of literary arts. And while there are very long poems, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule these days…and if you get one word a little bit wrong out of thirty or fifty or five hundred words, it sticks out a lot more than one or two or ten out of 100,000.
And then I found out that Virginia Woolf had some of the same reservations (or at least, I think that’s what she meant when she said “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.”
After I read that, I felt a lot better about my doubts. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that, like everything else in writing, the whole question of Finding The Right Word is a balancing act. Because sometimes there really is a right word; it just happens a whole lot less often than I think it does. More important, I find that if I try to completely ignore the whole question of finding the perfect right word, and just write whatever seems close, I end up getting sloppier and sloppier, until my “first draft” is well nigh unreadable and requires more work in revision than I’d have done if I’d just taken a few minutes to consider alternatives the first time through.
So these days, I try to limit the amount of time I spend hunting for the perfect word. I give myself less time to agonize about it before I put in the “placeholder” and move on. Oddly enough, I seem to have just about the same (small) number of later revisions as I did before I instituted this policy, which says to me that I’ve got the balance right…for now.