Lightning and the Lightning Bug

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.

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13 Responses to Lightning and the Lightning Bug

  1. Shelly says:

    I can’t move forward until I have the right words written, but for me, it’s a matter of finding the right word at that moment. The next day, when I revise what I wrote, the right words might be those words, or they might be different ones, as I’ve gained a fresh perspective after sleeping on it (literally and figuratively).

    I guess for me it’s about being satisfied with the words. Because sometimes, I do pick the wrong word (and I mean WRONG word) and I know it’s wrong and I’m too much into the writing flow to stop and look it up, so I save that for later. And other times, I do stop and look it up because if I don’t, it’ll nag at me and prevent forward progress.

    I agree about the poets. I think the fewer words you have to start with determines how “right” those words need to be. Novelists have the most leeway, poets almost none, similarly for flash fiction writers, and short story writers vary depending on the length of the piece.

  2. David Youngs says:

    Oscar Wilde: “I spent the entire morning inserting a comma; I spent the whole afternoon removing it again.”
    In the movie Topsy-Turvy, W.S. Gilbert decides after the final dress rehearsal to remove a song. The next day the entire company shows up to ask him to put it back. Sometimes you get too close to your work and can no longer see it properly.

  3. Anju says:

    I find searching for exactly the right word or phrasing can be paralyzing. I find I usually just try to type something that’s close enough and then move on.

    I just hope I don’t wind up regretting that when I get around to the rewrite.

  4. NotACat says:

    The aspect of this that drives me wild is when the dialogue is polished to within an inch of its life. There’s no way normal people talk as if they’ve swallowed a dictionary, spent 17 hours perusing and carefully considering it, drafted each paragraph thrice then regurgitated the result like Ralph Richardson expounding Shakespeare! (Having said which, I’m not above talking like I type, so maybe I’m just an outlier ;-)

    Obviously you don’t necessarily want to reproduce dialogue exactly, with all the stops and grunts and stutters, but there’s a certain level of realism which you require if your characters are to escape the verbal Uncanny Valley.

    One thing which I seem to have great difficult with is working out how to make my characters distinguishable from each other in dialogue, and this keys into both your point and mine: do I spend hours trying to figure out just exactly how a teenage girl would say something as opposed to how a 20-something man would say it, or do I simply write down the words their counterparts in my head give me and hope for the best? :-D

  5. James Eades says:

    I agree with the thought, ‘Balance and rhythm are sometimes more important than the perfect word in the right place,’ but I reserve the right to respect Twain. I love the way he was always ready with a wisecrack.

    Also, your ‘.01%’ really ought to be ‘.001%’ but the idea is right on.

  6. Chicory says:

    For me, `right word’ syndrome is usually a matter of being able to picture a thing, but not remember the name. (I tend to pull a blank on the word `awning’ for some reason.) So I don’t often agonize over the `right word’ in the sense you mean, but I will spend hours tinkering with my paragraphs- rearranging the order of the lines, then changing them back, then deciding to combine two short paragraphs… for me, it can be a way to avoid working on my story, while at the same time feeling like I’ve accomplished something.

  7. S. A. Cox says:

    Erm. As a writing tutor– and former Freshman English TA– I have, unfortunately, seen WAY too many people with the opposite problem. They think that “synonyms” really do mean the exact same thing, and that to sound “academic,” they should throw in a few $5 words, where the 25 cent ones would have been not only fine, but a whole lot clearer.

    My most common question to writing students is, “What are you really trying to say, here? If I am in front of a computer, I will type up the exact words that come out of their mouths, and more than 90% of the time, those words are perfect.

  8. S. A. Cox says:

    For the record: for myself, I think that there are often two or three words with close enough meanings to work, in these sorts of situations.

    • pcwrede says:

      Chicory – Somebody ought to write a book on Writing Avoidance Techniques … except it would probably never get finished. :) If you know that rearranging paragraphs is one of your writing avoidance behaviors, about all you can do is be aware of it and maybe make yourself a rule that you are only allowed to do it AFTER you have produced X many new words that day.

      S.A.Cox – People try too hard. Sometimes, that manifests as spending a bunch of time and effort searching for a non-existent “right word,” and sometimes it manifests as spending a bunch of time and effort searching for a fancier alternative to a perfectly fine word, because the writer things fancier is better.

      James – Thanks for pointing out the math typo!

  9. Alex Fayle says:

    I’m too lazy to look for the right word, but since the wrong word always jumps out at me in the edit stage I don’t worry about it. ;)

  10. Jim Bowers says:

    An excellent thought and something that all writers would do well to bear in mind in times when their focus should be on “productivity” rather than “editing”. Quite often, too, what is needed is not just the right word but merely the right word

  11. Brian Donovan says:

    Sometimes, however, Twain’s line is one the mark (so to speak). Exemplum: “when I was pouring over my current chapter-in-process.” Pouring what? Maple syrup? Please pass the lightning . . .

  12. Brian Donovan says:

    . . . Exemplum #2: “one the mark.”

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