Caring for Words, XI: The Right Word


Abstraction and imprecision are enemies of good writing. Not at all coincidentally, they are among the preferred weapons of politicians, hucksters, and other con artists. The concrete, specific, and particular prove harder to come by, but almost always repay the writer’s effort.

Achieving verbal precision is often part of the hard and necessary work of revision. It typically results in a tighter, briefer text. I like final drafts rich in short, declarative sentences, but not all precision is in the service of plain sense and straightforward clarity. Sometimes the perfect word is mysterious, ambiguous, or necessarily abstract. Faulkner sweated over every word and comma in his long, twisting ribbons of prose. Wallace Stevens wrote “The poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully.”* Those who find his verse opaque might give him another chance. He, too, labored to place “the best words in the best order.”** Pushing sentences of layered meaning to their limits, the titans of late modernism wrote with exactitude, each line and paragraph as clear as they could make them.

There is no clarity without precision. Clear sentences, like clear windows, are not ends in themselves. We polish windows in order to see better through them. We polish prose for the same reason. In any revision worth doing, the writer learns something along the way, and hopes to lead her reader to a similar discovery. Why else would we write? Why else do we read?

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

  • -Mark Twain, letter to George Bainton, Oct 1888

“Somewhere is better than anywhere. And traditional manners, however unbalanced, are better than no manners at all.”

  • -Flannery O’Connor, “In the Protestant South”

“Precision is, after all, not only a form of responsibility and a kind of pleasure, but an instrument of compassion. To be precise requires care, time, and attention to the person, place, or process being described.”

  • – Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

  • -J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

*Wallace Stevens, “Man Carrying Thing”
** Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk, July 12, 1827

Image: Mark Twain

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