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Writers on Writing: Ten Tips for Finding the Right Words

Revising for Precise Language

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Writers on Writing: Ten Tips for Finding the Right Words

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

Finding the right word--le mot juste--was a lifelong quest for French novelist Gustave Flaubert:

Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it. You must seek that word, that verb, that adjective, and never be satisfied with approximations, never resort to tricks, even clever ones, or to verbal pirouettes to escape the difficulty.
(letter to Guy de Maupassant)
A perfectionist (who happened to have an independent income), Flaubert would spend days worrying over a single sentence until he got the words just right.

Most of us, I suspect, don't have that kind of time available. As a result, we often have to be "satisfied with approximations" when drafting. Near synonyms and almost-right words, like temporary bridges, let us move on to the next sentence before a deadline arrives.

Nonetheless, converting inexact words to precise ones remains a critical part of revising our drafts--a process that can't be reduced to one simple method or clever trick. Here are ten points worth considering the next time you find yourself in search of the right word.


  1. Be Patient
    In revising, if the right word is not at hand, run a search, sort, select process through your mind to see if you can find it. (Even then, a word may be elusive, refusing to emerge from the mind one day only to arise from the subconscious the next.) . . . Be prepared to rewrite today what you revised yesterday. Above all, be patient: take the time to select words that will transfer your exact thought to the mind of a reader.
    (May Flewellen McMillan, The Shortest Way to the Essay: Rhetorical Strategies. Mercer University Press, 1984)

  2. Wear Out Your Dictionary
    Once you have a dictionary, use it! Wear it out! . . .

    When you sit down to write and need a particular word, pause to consider the key ideas you want to convey. Start with a word that's in the ballpark. Look it up and go from there, exploring synonyms, roots, and usage notes. Many's the time a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary has led me to the word that fits, much as the right jigsaw puzzle piece slips into place.
    (Jan Venolia, The Right Word!: How to Say What You Really Mean. Ten Speed Press, 2003)

  3. Recognize Connotations
    Do not be fooled into thinking you can substitute one word for another simply because a thesaurus groups them together under a single entry. The thesaurus will do you little good unless you are familiar with the connotations of possible synonyms for a given word. "Portly," "chubby," "chunky," "heavy," "overweight," "stocky," "plump," and "obese" are all possible synonyms for "fat," but they are not interchangeable. . . . Your task is to select the word that conveys most accurately the precise shade of meaning or feeling you intend.
    (Peter G. Beidler, Writing Matters. Coffeetown Press, 2010)

  4. Put Away Your Thesaurus
    Using a thesaurus will not make you look smarter. It will only make you look like you are trying to look smarter.
    (Adrienne Dowhan et al., Essays That Will Get You Into College, 3rd ed. Barron's, 2009)

  5. Beware of Fancy Language
    There is a difference between vivid language and unnecessarily fancy language. As you search for the particular, the colorful, and the unusual, be careful not to choose words merely for their sound or appearance rather than for their substance. When it comes to word choice, longer is not always better. As a rule, prefer simple, plain language over fancy language. . . .

    Avoid language that seems stilted or unnecessarily formal in favor of language that sounds natural and genuine to your ear. Trust the right word--whether fancy or plain--to do the job.
    (Stephen Wilbers, Keys to Great Writing. Writer's Digest Books, 2000)

  6. Delete Pet Words
    They may be more pests than pets. They are the words you overuse without even knowing it. My own problem words are "very," "just," and "that." Delete them if they're not essential.
    (John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells a Truth. W.W. Norton, 2003)

  7. Eliminate the Wrong Words
    I do not choose the right word. I get rid of the wrong one. Period.
    (A.E. Housman, quoted by Robert Penn Warren in "An Interview in New Haven." Studies in the Novel, 1970)

  8. Listen
    [B]ear in mind, when you're choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.
    (William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 7th ed. HarperCollins, 2006)

  9. Be True
    "How do I know," the sometimes despairing writer asks, "which the right word is?" The reply must be: only you can know. The right word is, simply, the wanted one; the wanted word is the one most nearly true. True to what? Your vision and your purpose.
    (Elizabeth Bowen, Afterthought: Pieces About Writing, 1962)

  10. Enjoy
    [P]eople often forget that the sheer joy of finding the right word which expresses a thought is extraordinary, an emotional rush of an intense kind.
    (playwright Michael Mackenzie, quoted by Eric Armstrong, 1994)

Is the struggle to find the right word truly worth the effort? Mark Twain thought so. "The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter," he once said. "It's the difference between the lightning-bug & the lightning."

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