Stories embody a love of words and ideas. Words are meaning. We use words to convey meaning, in the same was the Bible has God doing so: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The French have a term for the distinctive use of words: le mot juste, or the right or most perfect choice of words.
For writers, le mot juste is our highest calling. It was so for the French author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), whom we still revere to this day for his novel Madame Bovary, whose writing launched the literary realism movement (from the jaws of romantic literature). Flaubert felt his writing should be the most perfect expression of real life possible, which meant each word or phrase he wrote needed to be the most perfect expression possible. Wikipedia reports:
“Flaubert famously avoided the inexact, the abstract and the vaguely inapt expression, and scrupulously eschewed the cliché.In a letter to George Sand he said that he spent his time ‘trying to write harmonious sentences, avoiding assonances‘.
“Flaubert believed in and pursued the principle of finding le mot juste (the right word), which he considered as the key means to achieve high quality in literary art. He worked in sullen solitude, sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page, never satisfied with what he had composed. In Flaubert’s correspondence he intimates this, explaining correct prose did not flow out of him and that his style was achieved through work and revision.”
We writers today have gone far beyond the simple realism Flaubert pursued, but the hard work of fusing imagination with verisimilitude remains pretty much the same. This fusion begins the instant you touch the keys to create an act, a perception, a scene. Careless use of words means you will likely confuse or distract your reader from understanding your meaning. This, of course, is the kiss of death for your writing.
So the two takeaways I offer for you to think about are:
Revise, revise, revise, for the best is yet to come. Thinking the first draft is the best and the last is sheer egotism and foolhardiness.
Think, search, and think some more. We have an extraordinary tool Flaubert could never have even dreamt of: the internet. Use your search engine and the plethora of online resources such as a synonym/antonym finder to find your perfect words. For the serious writer who wants to know how certain words came into being, this is a great website:
I (too often) see slapdash manuscripts in which the writer hasn’t done this fundamental research and I cringe. In fact, the inspiration for this blog came from checking the weather on my phone today: “Light Rain Forecasted.”
Forecasted? What’s the matter with forecast? An online dictionary query reveals the fact that forecast can express either singular or plural – although forecasted is purportedly also acceptable.
Writing and editing are my first love, but my second is woodworking. Both require attention to craft, to detail, to accuracy. I recall a song about words by the band Ēbn-Ōzn entitled “AEIOU Sometimes Y” which reminds us:
There are 178 parent languages on our planet with over 1000 dialects
It’s amazing we communicate at all
Strive to find and use le mot juste so you are always communicating clearly with your readers.