The Difference between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word

Unlike many other quotes falsely attributed to Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word” is truly a Mark Twain quote. It is also (IMHO) an excellent metaphor to illustrate the vital importance of word choice.

Word Choice Makes Writing an Art

Like sense of urgency and frame story, word choice can be defined by its name – it’s the words you choose when writing (*gasp* No!). As obvious and redundant as that seems, this literary device is actually the core of not only what makes writing an art but also what makes one writer different from another.

Think about it. No, seriously, picture a scene from real life. Interesting, banal, recent, historic – it doesn’t matter as long as you can clearly picture what happened. Now, think about how many different ways you could write that scene. You could turn it into horror, science fiction, fantasy, historical realism, romance, etc. You could write it from first person, second person, third person limited, or even narrate it. You could use elaborate descriptions or lean, mean sentences that are cut down to the action alone.

Hundreds of ways to write the same scene.

And all those differences come from the words you choose and how you put them together. The mood you want to create, the tone of the piece, and even your personal style as a writer, it all comes down to this one literary device.

Down to “the difference between the right word and the almost right word…”

Don’t believe me? Well, imagine if Mark Twain said this quote today in today’s language. Would he have said, “lightning and a lightning bug” or “fire and a firefly”? They have the same relationship, right? And “lightning bug” and “firefly” are words for the same insect.

But doesn’t that word choice change the characterization of the speaker? Could it change the setting? If you write the same story with different words, is it the same story?

Or is it as different as “lightning and a lightning bug”?

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