Getting the Words Right: Simple is Better

Getting the Words Right: Simple is BetterWhen Ernest Hemingway was asked about rewriting in a 1958 interview, he said that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. What stumped him? “Getting the words right.”

Who hasn’t had that problem?

To quote Mark Twain:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

How do you know the right word from the almost right word? When is one sentence structure preferable to another?  When is something style and when is it bad grammar?

It depends. It depends on whether you’re aiming for a literary masterpiece, likely to win awards at the cost of a broad readership. It depends on whether you’re already well-known, or are an unpublished writer hoping for your first break. And it depends on the personal preference of your editor or publisher.

Writing has fashions, just like art or architecture. If you read the works of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens alongside award-winning Melbourne crime novelist Peter Temple, you’d scarcely believe they wrote in the same language.

The tide was turning by the time Mark Twain penned his best-known novels. In a letter he wrote in 1880 he said:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.”

Hemingway held a similar view. William Faulkner once said of Hemingway that he’d “never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway’s reply was priceless:

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Strunk and White said much the same thing in The Elements of Style:

“Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able.”

According to this wisdom, the right word may not be waiting for you in the pages of your thesaurus. It may be a word you already know, and use every day. The magic, and the struggle, comes from how you select them and string them together.