Quest for Le Mot Juste

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

For those of us who love language, fireworks go off in our brains when we encounter the right word.  Mark Twain, who so often chose the right word, put it this way: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.”

The French have a phrase for that perfect choice of word – le mot juste.  Gustave Flaubert, who coined the expression, agonized over each and every word he wrote.  He strove for precision and clarity in his writing in the same way a lapidary cuts a precious stone to reflect maximum brilliance.  Although his countryman Peter Roget had developed a handy thesaurus of synonyms and antonyms, Flaubert refused to use it.  For him, there was no such thing as a synonym.  Only one unique word could express the thought he wished to convey.  Likewise, the arrangement of words in the sentence was of critical importance.  He spent hours “grinding away at it, digging into it, turning it over and over, rummaging about in it.”  Sometimes he spent an entire day laboring over a single sentence.

I have been rummaging about in a novel for the last two plus years and am sometimes locked in combat with a sentence that resists my best efforts to make it say what I want it to say.  When I get hung up and can’t stop obsessing, I fear I’ve fallen too much into Flaubert’s habits of mind.  Instead, I should heed the advice of Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life.  Lamott maintains that perfectionism kills creativity.  It leads to procrastination.  It causes cramps.  It can even drive a writer crazy.  As I pore over my latest draft, second-guessing every word, I wonder if my quest for le mot juste is messing with my head and keeping me from a fast downhill schuss to THE END.

Lamott is all for getting on with the story.  “Perfectionism,” she says, “is the main obstacle between the writer and a shitty first draft.”

Au contraire, Flaubert would argue.  He regarded a single shitty sentence as a sacrilege, let alone an entire draft.  Bad syntax affected him physically.  “Poorly written sentences tighten the chest and impede the beating of the heart,” he declared.

Get a grip, says Lamott.  You are clearly over the edge, monsieur.  “Perfection is the voice of the oppressor.”

James Thurber butts in with an aphorism of his own.  “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

Precisely, agrees Jane Smiley.  “Every first draft is perfect because all it has to do is exist.”

But isn’t that a bit glib?  No writer wants to produce dreck just for the sake of a having a stack of paper she can hold in her hands.

Hold the phone, says C. J. Cherryh, kibitzing in Writerisms and Other Sins, A Writer’s Shortcut to Stronger Writing.  “It’s okay if it’s garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.”

It all sounds so simple.  Dash off a crappy first draft and voilà.  But Flaubert couldn’t do it and, to my abiding regret, neither can I.  I make up my story as I go and at the start, I don’t know how it will end.  Moreover, I’m a slow writer.  Slow and self-critical by nature.  If something reads badly or doesn’t make sense, I can’t just leave it and race on to the finish, telling myself I can come back to fix the problem later.  That lingering plot mistake or clumsy device or faulty characterization will carry over into the next chapter and the chapter after that.  The result may be inextricable knots, a maze of inconsistencies and utter confusion.

Lamott assures me that “messes are the artist’s true friend.”  I don’t buy it.  Messes bring me no happiness and a 300-page mess brings pure misery.  If the work required to repair a manuscript seems too onerous and time consuming, I’d rather shred it and start over.  To save myself this frustration, I revise and refine and polish as I go, even if it means that I don’t finish the first draft until it has evolved and turned into the final draft.  I obsess over some thorny sentences now and then, but I don’t agonize over every word in pursuit of perfection as Flaubert did.  There’s bound to be something wrong with any piece of prose that reaches 300 pages, regardless of the ratio of lightning bugs to lightning strikes.

When my novel finally appears in print, I won’t despair as Flaubert did when he opened his “perfect” Madame Bovary.  “The misprints, three or four repetitions…one page with an abundance of the word ‘which’ – as for the rest, it was black, nothing more.”

Oh, well.  It was, after all, a story about the folly of aspirations that can never be realized.

3 thoughts on “Quest for Le Mot Juste

  1. Ernest Hemingway agonized over words and phrases. While living in Paris, he wrote in a garret, away from his home and his significant other. He buried himself in words and sometimes took a full day to write a sentence. I’d be crazy after a day like this, completely frustrated, but as you say, I like a finely tuned manuscript. I check for duplicate words and phrases, nonsensical thoughts before moving on to the next scene. I want a fairly polished piece as I go and hopefully, finish more than one sentence after a day’s work. 🙂


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