“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
There’s a scene in the fourth season of “The Crown” that magnificently illustrates the power in choosing just the right word.
It’s 1986. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth do not agree that Britain should take full economic sanctions in South Africa. Maggie slashes out the word sanctions in the document that the Queen wants her to sign.
That evening, Thatcher grumbles to her husband, “… we need to come up with a word that works for everyone.”
“Well good luck with that,” he replies.
Liz is determined to win Maggie over with the right word.
So ensures a series of revisions that’s surprisingly dramatic for those of us who care about words.
The next version presented in the document is the word, proposals.
Thatcher draws a red slash through it.
Constructions. Moves. Deterrents.
Slash. Slash. Slash.
Limits. Bounds. Brakes.
Slash. Slash. Slash.
The word slashing finally ends with the Iron Lady signing her name to the version that contained the word signals, (a word that is ultimately chosen by the Queen’s speech writer.)
Because that’s what writers do. We search for the right word, no matter how long it takes, until the job is done.
I was reminded of this commitment to word finding when I recently asked for input from my longtime writers’ group on my forthcoming book’s logline and subtitle. We spent a really long time grappling over a handful of words. The process was hugely productive but in what can only be described as the underbelly of this obsession, I’m still wrestling the final version or I’d share it here.
Because it matters! Those of us who turn to the page know the beauty-clarity-discovery-truth that can come with finding the word that says what we want to say. Because those choices are our voice on the page.
For more on word selection and language, see my “Ellen’s Essential Elements of Essay” available for free here.
Photo by Mick Haupt.
My essay “Tandem Thoughts” about a tandem bike ride with my husband in Amsterdam is featured in the anthology, Chicago Storytellers: From Stage to Page. You can see it (and order it!) here.
“What Makes a Memoir Spiritual?” Story Studio Chicago, Four-week workshop, February 2,9,16,23