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On Writing: The Power of the Exact Word

Flaubert quote with image of milky way from chamrickwriter

The literary world attributes le mot juste, or “the exact word,” to 19th-century author Gustave Flaubert: “All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.”

Beyond this pointed sentence, the author dropped plenty of good lines about style: “Style is as much under the words as in the words. It is as much the soul as it is the flesh of a work.”

So what are we to make of finding le mot juste? Examine every sentence, no matter how simple, for placement of the perfect word in the precise place. In your novel. In your storytelling. In your proposal. In your white paper. In your PowerPoint. In your email. In your Tweet.

Flaubert would spend days, even weeks, to compose a single page. Not an option in the digital age. Still, wrestling a few extra minutes for the right words is time well spent.

For the ideal word lesson, go for the real thing. In 2010, Lydia Davis translated Madame Bovary, capturing Flaubert’s “zest for linguistic precision,” as Maureen Corrigan phrased in her delightful NPR review:

“How tickled Madame Bovary herself would be by the latest homage paid to her — a feature in the September issue of Playboy magazine! For the ‘original desperate housewife,’ as she’s been called, the knowledge that she’s the object of the collective male gaze might have relieved some of the dismal boredom that characterized so much of Emma Bovary’s provincial life.”

In terms of our humanity as writers, this quotation shines: “. . . human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance, when we long to move the stars.”

In sum, as Flaubert wrote in a letter to Louise Colet  (his muse and character model) in 1852: “The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result.”

Great content can do no better.

Categories: The Writing Well

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Catherine Hamrick

Soul deep storyteller, poet, copywriter, and editor with a passion for wordplay, gardens, literature, and the South

3 replies

  1. I particularly like Flaubert’s remark to Madame Colet. The goal of writing is to match word with thought. Of course, one hopes that the thoughts are original and interesting and worth expressing.

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