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On Writing: The Power of the Exact Word

As a copy chief for a magazine and book division, I edited articles relentlessly—while honoring artful turns of phrase—inspired by Gustave Flaubert, the masterful storyteller who coined the term le mot juste, or “the exact word.” He wrote, “All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.” That’s something to think about whether you write poetry or prose.

Illustration of Gustave Flaubert adapted from Eugene Giraud paintingFlaubert would spend days, even a week, to compose a single page. Not an option in the digital age. Still, wrestling for the right words is time well spent. Examine every sentence, no matter how simple, for placement of the precise expression. In your novel. In your essay. In your poem. In your query letter. In your email. In your tweet.

In other words, deliberately cut excess verbiage, even if that means killing adored lines that sound great but bring zero meaning to the piece.

For the ideal word lesson, check out Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary (Viking, 2010), which captures Flaubert’s “zest for linguistic precision,” as Maureen Corrigan noted in an NPR review.

In a letter to the poet and novelist Louise Colet (also his muse and character model), Flaubert expressed his desire to achieve a style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.”

Engaging content can do no better.


  1. Karen Lin

    Hi Catherine! Yes… the exact word. I think I take this a bit too seriously. I tend to be, if anything, an overly tight writer. Have two of my books up on Amazon now. Try them and see if you agree with me. I started in poetry and shorts and short essays… I think that is why I write so tightly.

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