I remember reading somewhere that the French novelist Gustave Flaubert was overzealous in the pursuit of finding, le mot juste – the right word. It has been purported that at times he’d spend several days labouring over a single sentence until it was perfect.
I’m not sure if this depiction of a man fervently poring over a text in the same way he voraciously sought out prostitutes of both sexes is accurate; considering he died at just 58 years of age and his work contained 12 major literary works.
Conjecture this may be, but the sentiment is true. A writer who uses the wrong word can literally create within a sentence a textual tremor and too many of these eventually lead to a literary earthquake; or put simply: If selected words irritate the reader, eventually they stop reading.
Most people that write don’t have the luxury of time. Being able to ponder the many permutations the English language permits us can be to the detriment of the text; as can the over-use of a thesaurus. How many times have you read something that is an example of an author who has sought to make their words appear more interesting? For example, here’s a simple sentence that shows what happens when you use the wrong word:
- Mickey was a shy child.
- Mickey was a timorous child.
I’m not sure a boy named Mickey would be referred to as timorous; maybe, had he been a Francis or Sebastian and born in 1820, then possibly – but more likely, bashful.
The English language has the largest vocabulary in the world and its vast range of synonyms and antonyms allow us to choose words for every occasion, but it is all about getting that choice right and below I have listed several examples:
- When a hard talking American cop has spent a third of his story being streetwise and judicious before he made an ill-advised judgement, he wouldn’t benefit from being called, inane when the word, dumbass works much better.
- Moira who works in accounts in Bridlington would never take a rain check, in much the same way that Sonny in a Brooklyn IT consultancy would never postpone.
- Gloria slid into the passenger seat sounds nicer than, Gloria slithered onto the seat. However, if Gloria had established herself as a sexual predator then slithered works much better. It’s a case of choosing the word to suit the character.
Although I advocate the importance of using the ‘right word’ no writer should be so wrapped up in the dissection of what they are writing that they cease to write. The important task is the creation of the text and it is* only after the story has been completed that the author should go back and reconsider the construction of the sentences.
* Note I used it is rather than it’s. They both mean the same but it is has a stronger presence than it’s, and is therefore more appropriate.
Barry is one of Renegade’s long-term members, currently living in Italy.