Flickr Creative Commons Image “The Lightning” by mhdhasan
Not long before he died, a scientist friend objected to the title of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” on the grounds that grass has spears, not leaves.
“But,” said Whitman, “Spears of Grass would not have been the same to me.”
Indeed it wouldn’t.
Mark Twain called the difference between the almost-right word and the one right one “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightening.”
How to find it
Start by asking who cares and why, so you can speak directly to them.
When you start to write, don’t try to find all the right words in your first draft unless you want to a) go crazy or b) never finish. Get your thoughts down as fast as you can, preferably in one go, and put the thing aside for a day.
The next day, revise, this time looking for the right words: the strongest, most compelling words you can come up with. Start with the obvious: the dictionary, the thesaurus, the visual thesaurus. Google. Look on Amazon.com and see if book titles help.
Let one source lead to another. Make lists, try things out and see how they sound.
How do you know when you’re on the right track?
The right word is not necessarily literal. (See “spears of grass” above.) It’s subjective, imaginative, seen through human eyes and sensibilities.
The right word erases the distance between the writer and the reader. It aims for closeness.
The right word is often the simplest.
The right word creates an image we can picture.
Make people feel
Most important, the right word makes the reader feel something, whether you’re writing about evolution, sports cars, or lipstick.
Let’s say you’re trying to explain a scientific concept. You could aim to make people feel:
• wow! now I understand
• I never thought of it that way
• I never thought I cared, but now I want to know more
What if you’re doing an opinion piece on something controversial? Here you don’t want agreement, you want to stir up discussion. You want people to think and react:
• I never thought of it that way, but maybe . . .
• that’s only part of the story
• what total bullshit
If you’re trying to entertain, the feelings you want are obvious, but how to get them isn’t – comedy is hard, as any comedian will tell you. But the reaction you want is
• that’s hysterical
• that’s pretty offensive, but still funny
You’re writing about climate change or economic threats?
• That’s truly scary
• I had no idea things were that bad
• What can I do about this?
You’re trying to sell something
• That’s beautiful
• That’s elegant
• I WANT THAT
Finally, read what you’ve written out loud. Do you know who you’re talking to? Will it grab them?
The process will probably take more than one revision and if you’re on deadline that might be hard. But when you succeed – Wow.