The Right Word

“How do ‎you do it?  How do writers write those beautiful, original lines?  So original they stay with you, change you, and make you see yourself and the world differently?”

Lately, my friend and student Refugia has been revising her work, raking through her sentences and weeding out clichès, clunkers, passive voice, and words that just don’t feel right.

Finding the wrong words is easy; replacing them, though, is something else.

Refugia poses her question so eloquently, it might be hard to believe she ever struggles for words. (Like many good writers, she answers herself better than I could. More on that in a bit.) But that’s what we forget about beautiful, original lines. Sometimes we only catch them after an epic search and some hard work.

For me, finding the just-right word is like shopping for shoes. You don’t order the first black pair you see on Zappo’s. You consider all the needs the shoes must satisfy: They should suit the occasion—no clogs with your wispy chiffon bridesmaid’s dress. They should complement your coloring and shape and build. They should be in your size. They should suit your individual style. You should like them.

Still, even when a pair looks perfect, you don’t know if they work until you actually put them on your feet. Only when you try them on will you know if they pinch or itch or slip or just feel, somehow, off.  

When the author Bob Smith was writing his novel Remembrance of Things I Forgot, he saved every attempt he made at writing a single sentence, one that would describe a character’s smile. It’s a revealing exercise that you should check out here—you watch, almost in real time, as Bob starts by trying on different ideas. He moves through awkward to clumsy to bumbling. Then, when he finds the right concept, he starts again, trying on word after word after word. In all, Bob makes more than 30 failed attempts before nailing his just-right description.

It takes patience, and focus. Refugia, who asked the question that started all this, has a smart, elegant approach to accomplishing this painstaking work, which I urge you to try.

Every morning, she looks at what she’s revising and chooses one sentence, phrase, or word that isn’t working. Then she dedicates her subway commute to rewriting it.

“I’m forcing myself, within that limited time, to look at what I’m working on differently, and use a word or a line that’s truly original and also true to what I’m trying to say.”

Which goes to show that we can find the answers to our questions in the same place we find the just-right word for our stories—within ourselves.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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