Le Mot Juste (Again)


Yesterday marked my third anniversary in the blogosphere. (Really? How can that be possible?) As I’m on the road today, I’ve selected an item from my beginning days to re-post. I hope you’ll find this piece from the summer of 2008 of interest.


I was blog-hopping recently, searching out my daily dose of writerly wisdom, and came across a comment made by the editor of Author Magazine that stuck with me. Referring to the meaning of the phrase le mot juste, the perfect word, Bill Kenower said, “Mathematicians agree on 12 x 12, physicists agree on gravity—why can’t we [writers] agree on something? Why can’t we agree there is at least one perfect phrase or word?”

But, of course, that will never happen. Even wresting a well-known word from my brain so I can utter it to the paperboy is a frustrating exercise some days, so expecting to find the exact word or phrase to perfectly convey a specific thought to every potential reader is beyond imagination.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in the world of writing there is not much writers fully agree upon. There is so much well-intentioned advice available, but no single approach to the craft that works for every person.

I’m told the best time to write is (a.) in the morning when my mind is fresh;  (b.) in the quiet of the night when there are no interruptions. The best place to write is (a.) sequestered in my office without distractions; (b.) in a coffee shop, bus or library surrounded by stimulation. The best way to write is (a.) with pen or pencil and paper for visceral involvement with my words; (b.) with wordprocessor or computer for quick capture of ephemeral thoughts and ease of editing.

I am encouraged to (a.) create first and worry about crafting later; (b.) ensure each word, sentence and paragraph is the right building block for what will follow. I am advised to (and as admonitions go, this is one of my favourites) (a.) follow the rules if I ever hope to get published; (b.) break all the rules if doing so serves my purpose.

Agreement is a fragile commodity in today’s world so perhaps it’s not surprising that writers cannot find it within their communities of communication. For writers, the perfect word will always be just out of reach.

How do you counteract the frustration when you’re not able to find just the word you need? 


Photo by graur codrin

Published by Carol

A freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction living on the West Coast of Canada.

11 thoughts on “Le Mot Juste (Again)

  1. My current WiP is riddled with square brackets containing things like: ‘[INSERT WITTY RESPONSE HERE]’; [NEEDS BETTER DESCRIPTION]’ etc. Over time, I usually think of something to go there.

    As for writing advice, I quite agree. Different things work for different people. On the rare occasions anyone asks for mine I tell them, ‘Find out what works best for you, then do that, a lot.’ 🙂

    1. The concept of not letting yourself linger at one difficult spot is good, Jon. Some days I’d get nothing more done unless I kept going. I’ll often insert “jkjkjk” in place of the right word… it’s easy to find in a later search.

  2. Congratulations on your three year anniversary for your excellent blog.

    Ah, great question. When I can’t find just the right word after flipping madly through my online Thesaurus, I begin to wonder if there IS such a perfect word. Rather than fight for a word, I resort to a metaphor or some other means of expression that conveys what I want to say. And, later on, revisions may erase the whole matter! Ha! Blessings to you, Carol…

  3. Hm, I just go crazy when I can’t find the perfect word. I’m sort-of kidding. If I’m on a first draft, I’ll put the cliched, not-so-great word, knowing that when I revise, I will change it.

    Second and subsequent drafts: Here’s a recent idea that I came up with, based on James Scott Bell’s Writer’s Digest article on revision. I open a new document; a blank page helps clear my mind of preconceived ideas. As quickly as I can, I write down every word (or action, description, etc.) that I can think of that might work in this situation. I usually come up with some outrageous ones and some of those supposedly wacked-out words or ideas actually work. I’ve come up with better non-verbal cues and metaphors this way.

    Perfect phrase? I propose these: I love you. Will you forgive me? You are special to me.

    1. I like that blank page idea, Laura. I can imagine it would remove any mental constraints the story might be enforcing. And wouldn’t the world be a different place if everyone adopted (and applied) your perfect phrases?

  4. If I want the perfect word or sentence, I’ll read from my favorite authors. They are my favorites for that reason, that their writing sings to me. Nothing like a good song stuck in your head.

    1. Getting inspiration from other writers would only work for me if I could figure out how not to keep reading. Once I start a book I have trouble getting back to my writing!

      1. Here’s an idea: pick up a favorite book, flip open at random, point your finger at a sentence and see if any of the words would work or points you to a different word that might work. I’ve never tried this, but hey, it might work if I took a really creative book with lots of wonderful imagery and creative word play. (I’ve heard of people doing this with the Bible to find God’s will…not a good idea!)

    1. Thanks, Karen. It’s good to be home again today but it was a lovely five days — visited family, attended a granddaughter’s graduation and got together one afternoon with a blogging buddy I hadn’t met before. Wonderful!

      When the Thesaurus doesn’t work for me, I’ve occasionally tried Google, too. I’m always amazed at what Googling can achieve, regardless of the topic!

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