The power of 'just the right word'

One item that distinguishes professional magicians from amateurs is the use of scripts. This is not to say that the professional will always recite – word for word – the same thing in each performance; however, the professional will always know what he or she is going to say.

The professional, whether a magician or a writer, will economize where possible and augment where necessary, and will know the appropriate time to do either.

Mark Twain, one of my favorite wordsmiths, had the ability to write beautiful, bountiful prose, but seemed most often to opt for economy in language. In the newspaper, I have always admonished my staff to follow his lead: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”

My goal in life is to someday write something that would be compared to Mark Twain. Even if to say, “that was nothing like Mark Twain!”

Like other excellent writers, he didn’t just write. He painted pictures. He wrote music. But he did it with words.

A first step, I think, is to understand the power and magic of the right word. While we have lots of them, words should be treasured for their value and meaning.

I remember a Zig Ziglar story from many years ago. He said he was traveling on an airplane, sitting next to a young woman who had a filthy mouth. Along the way he couldn’t help but make an observation about her language.

She replied, “They’re just words!”

Later on the flight, he asked where she was going. She told him she was going to visit her parents.

“My goodness,” he said. “Do you talk like that in front of your parents?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I would never do that.”

“Why not?” he responded. “They’re just words!”

His somewhat sarcastic reply made the point – there is no such thing as “just words.”

Restraining yourself from writing or saying the wrong thing is often more important that saying the right thing – as many a political candidate has demonstrated. But, oh, to be able to have just the right words – it is a gift to be sought.

But again, I can’t say it as well as my hero, so I will leave the closing to him:

“A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader’s way and makes it plain; a close approximation to it will answer, and much traveling is done in a well-enough fashion by its help, but we do not welcome it and applaud it and rejoice in it as we do when the right one blazes out on us. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry.”