Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Choosing the right word

All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

Writing begins with an idea. "Ideas are to literature what light is to painting," the French writer Paul Bourger once said. Such things as grammar, punctuation, spelling and style also play a part. Still, as Francine Prose puts, it finally comes down to choosing one word instead of another.The best writers find the best words.

In her book, Prose illustrates her point, as she says she does in the college classes she teaches, by going through the opening paragraph of Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" practically word by word. Why did O'Connor choose the words she did, and why does it make a difference? By the time you read Prose's next couple of pages you realize O'Connor's choices made all the difference in the world.

We can play the same game with one of the most familiar opening lines in literature, found in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Austen's punctuation may be suspect, but it's hard to argue with her word choices.

I am reminded of those who say, as I have said myself, there is no such thing as a synonym. Words may mean similar things, but rarely do they mean exactly the same thing or carry the same weight. They don't sound the same, and even in the written word, how words sound makes a difference. Imagine if Austen, instead of writing "universally acknowledged," had tried "widely accepted" or "recognized around the world." How much different that opening line would have been. Instead of "a single man in possession of a good fortune," she could have written "a wealthy bachelor." Instead of "must be in want of a wife" she might have said "must be looking for a spouse" or "needs a good woman."

Would Jane Austen's opening line have been as memorable had she opted for other words to say what she had to say? I doubt it.

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