The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. — Mark Twain
I was reminded of this quote this evening as I started to read Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. (This is the inscription inside the cover page.)
Twain’s comment is perfect, both in form and in meaning. He doesn’t catch the lightning bug, he captures the lighting. And he uses every right word to write that sentence, proving his point.
Writing is about the right word. Sometimes you want the lightening. Suspense. A chasm that opens into the black night, illuminating the angry clouds. The loud crack, the flash of light, the smell of the air burning. Other times, you want the lightening bug. Magical. Smile-inducing. Flitting here and there, with no direction or care. Its little green belly writing summertime across the lawns.
“We must learn to imagine what we already know.” — Percy Bysshe Shelley
The right word depends on the circumstance. You know it when you’ve written it, the one that you have imagined. The one that tells everything that you know. The one that is absolutely perfect.