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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Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Old Proverb

No, it’s not a Mark Twain quote – or at least not one that’s been backed up by reliable resources.

If you Google this proverb, you’ll come up with plenty of sites that attribute it to Mark Twain (Goodreads, for one); however, I haven’t been able to find any reliable proof that he actually said it. And while I’d like to be able to say that it’s his quote (there’s something emotionally satisfying about quoting Mark Twain), I like to at least try to use accurate quotes and attributions.

What I did find is articles about how often Mark Twain is misquoted. There’s a whole website called Unquotable: Mark Twain, dedicated humorously to making up quotes that people will believe are his (not very helpful but interesting). The best actual research I found was compiled in a Huffington Post article called “That’s What He Said: Quoting Mark Twain.” The article lists various resources for checking whether the line you’re using was actually written by or said by Mark Twain. Some even let you search his letters and written works.

Well, I searched through those for this quote, and it was not in there. I looked through their lists of quotes by topic, and it still wasn’t there. I even did a Google Book search (a good way to verify quotes by writers, by the way), and none of the books that came up were his (or even that old). One of them, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, happens to be on my bookshelf (I guess I should’ve started there), and although it traces the line back to several variations and sources, none of those sources are Mark Twain.

Of course, at this point, the idea that Mark Twain said this is so firmly entrenched in the internet that there’s no changing it, true or false. Which is also kind of funny in context with the quote, isn’t it?