Writing and Editing

Revision: le mot juste

Gustave Flaubert, the brilliant French novelist, once advised a student to search for le mot juste, the perfect word in their writing. What does that mean? It means that in every sentence, no matter how basic, how routine, each word should be the perfect word for that sentence, with that meaning, at that particular point in the story. Every. Single. Word.

If you are looking at an 85,000 word novel this can be quite a challenge. And it is truly a challenge to make each word a conscious decision. But this is what we writers do, particularly if we’re striving to become one of the very best. It’s an integral part of the revision and editing process and it’s something every professional writer does. And every writer with dreams of becoming a professional should be doing

It’s making sure every. single. word. is the perfect word for every part of every. single. sentence. If being a great writer were easy, everyone would be doing it. Right?

This is all about mining language for the exact nuance our story demands. Only we, as the story’s authors, can truly know what the perfect shade of meaning is for any particular situation. After all, we’re the ones seeing it originally in our heads. However, should we get the nuance wrong, the reader will surely notice it, particularly if we fall back on the easy solutions of cliché and the mundane.

An example. For our purposes, we will only consider the verb.

“She walked into the room.”

It’s a sentence. It’s grammatically correct, uses an active voice, and gets the job done. As readers, we clearly know what happened. A woman walked into the room. It’s very utilitarian. But it isn’t terribly inspired, is it?

Now, let’s adjust the verb a bit.

“She glided into the room.”

The change of verb totally changes the mental picture in the reader’s mind. But it still might not be accurate.

“She sauntered into the room.”

Again a different mental picture.

“She trudged into the room.”

“She floated into the room.”

“She strolled into the room.”

All of these variations are fine. It just depends on what the story needs. The object is to find that precise word that most perfectly conveys the image in our mind.

And to do that with every. single. word.


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