Why do fiction writers obsess over picking just the right word or phrase?

I’ve been guilty of this myself in writing classes. You drive yourself crazy staring at every sentence and worrying about getting just the right word or phrase.


Any good reader scans when they read. We only absorb a few words in each sentence. The more enraptured I get the faster I read a great story. It reaches a point where my eyes are skipping entire sentences. I get excited and want to see what happens next. Who is the killer? If I read too long, like an entire 400 page book in a day, then I read the last chapters way too fast and skip too much detail. I often reread them later to get the details.

It’s the poor struggling reader that uses his finger. Jack…walked…up…the…hill…to…fetch…a…pail…of…water. No wonder they hate reading. I’d hate reading too if I had to read every word.

I almost feel sorry for these authors that beat themselves up over choosing the perfect word or obsessing over a comma.

We don’t see that 60% of that stuff when we read. :stuck_out_tongue:

I’m like that when I read good stuff. From critiquing a lot of rough drafts I can definitely say that no matter how unimportant the spot in the sentence seems, if you pick the wrong word it’s usually jarring.

Such is the lament of the fiction writer. What I’ve found has derailed my writing, in a lot of cases, is two things – the “paralysis of choice,” and the need for me to craft the perfect sentence. These two elements kind of go hand in hand.

For those of you that haven’t experienced the concept of The Paralysis of Choice, I can give you a common example. Some people can walk into a Baskin-Robbins, walk right up to the counter, tell the scoop jockey exactly what they need, and walk out happy – never once questioning that they made the right call, or wondering what they missed. Others will stand in front of that line of flavors and quite literally be unable to make a decision – what if they make the wrong one? What if they get butter-pecan when in reality they would have been happier with maple walnut, or rum-raisin?

It’s a pretty common pitfall in writing. What I’ve found helps me – and your mileage may vary – are these two habits:

A) Outline my plan as much as possible, so I’m not flying blind as it relates to the plot. Simple bulletpoints detailing the major plot points and the beats I want to hit help me focus less on the minutiae of the sentence, and more upon getting from Point A to Point B.

B) JUST WRITE IT DOWN and worry about editing later. The first draft is just that. The words can be massaged later, and you’ll be a lot less likely to abandon ship if you’ve already done the bulk of the work.
As to why writers obsess about their phrasing… well, one might as well wonder why an artist is never happy with their finished painting. Again, the torture of the creative soul is usually that we’re never all that pleased with the final product. That’s what makes us human – our desire to constantly improve.

I guess the wrong word can be jarring. Sort of like a scratch on a painted wall. Once you see it, there’ no way to **Not **see it. Or eyes are funny how they can unexpectedly focus on a tiny detail.

Reading is such a fascinating abstract concept. You’re reading words, creating mental images of the setting, forming impressions of the characters, and absorbing the story’s plot.

I’ve never been in a English aristocratic’s manor house. Yet Agatha Christie has transported me there dozens of times. I feel like I know those people and the privileged lives they led in the 30’s and 40’s.

Not all fiction writing is that precise, is it?

Some works I just read through, fast, and enjoy or not. (John MacDonald?) At the other extreme is Nabokov, where I have to back and re-read to see what clues I missed.

And I’m reminded of Jack Kerouac, who had his manuscript of On the Road, rejected with an editor’s comment, “That’s not writing, it’s typing!” I heard the story (perhaps apocryphal) that Kerouac wrote in a couple of days on a roll of paper towels threaded through his type writer.

Why does a painter obsess about not missing a spot? Why does a good car mechanic obsess on making sure the car is repaired correctly? Why is a doctor obsessed on making sure his diagnosis is correct?

It’s part of doing a the job right

You may scan (not everyone does), but the words you scan have to be right or else the story won’t work properly. You say the better the story, the faster you read, but the reason you’re reading through it so rapidly is that the author chose the right words. The choice of a wrong word can stop the reader dead.

Usually, a successful author won’t obsess over words on the first draft (though there are certainly exceptions), but gets something down in order to improve it later. The editing process involves taking the words that misfire and replacing them with ones that do the job, and the reason why most writers fail is that they don’t choose the right words. Some writers, like Kerouac (who, BTW, typed On the Road on a roll of teletype paper, not paper towels) or Isaac Asimov, write everything in one draft and make it work. Not all writers can do that.

As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”

Ninjaed by Chuck :smack

I guess the only possible comment that would be appropriate outside the pit is that there is more than one kind of writing. Some writing is utterly dependent on the individual words; some is dependent on other modes, like action or plot. Even inside genre, some writers can truly bring you into the story and others can’t. I’d consider Agatha Christie a terrible example. Her world was as ludicrous as a Dan Brown novel. Dorothy Sayers knew ten times as much about that world as Christie.

Genre fiction can contain good writing, but even the best examples create worlds that are qualitatively different from those of literary fiction. If you aren’t aware of this difference, I’d suggest that the problem lies with you rather than with the author.


And…it’s fun! It’s fun when you can use a less-than-common word properly. It’s fun to sneak in “interregnum” when it’s appropriate. It’s fun to stretch the reader’s vocabulary, just a little. (And…stretch our own!)

Maybe it’s pretentious – it certainly would be if overdone – but it’s part of the joy of the craft. It’s like the nice little mother-of-pearl insets you might find in a high-quality acoustic guitar: they don’t serve any real purpose, but they look nice, and they indicate the dedication the guitar-maker had to doing a good job.

While I agree with your destination I cannot agree with your mode of transportation…

Some literature is beautiful for the intricate web the language weaves, some for the tangled plots, and some for the motives of characters.

I have read plenty of genre fiction that had gorgeous example of literature in it. The pretension that accompanies literary fiction does it no favors.

I think authors struggle so much with words sometimes because of the words’ connotations. A word, despite its textbook definitions, is attached to so many emotions. And the author knows the reader will have their own set. Between the two lies the abyss of words.

And sometimes (at least in my case) it’s a way of procrastinating when I don’t know what to do with the plot and I’ve rearranged my desk enough.

I’ve spent my whole adult life in genre fiction. I was a champion of it.

I’m also under no illusions about the quality of most of its prose.

But we’re also in a thread with an OP who can post this:

Those are the words of someone who clearly only has ever read the kind of genre fiction that outsiders use as a club to beat proponents of genre over the head with. There’s no difference between this and the sort of thread that asks why people bother with learning math since they never use it in real life. Math has a beauty that is utterly different from making change. So does literary fiction, which if it’s good needs no excuses for its existence.

I don’t champion genre any longer. I’ve given up. Quality genre has been marginalized. That’s an understatement: it’s been given up for dead. The people have spoken and they all sound like aceplace.

It’s not just fiction writing. I do it in my proposal writing. (And get well-paid for my obsessiveness.) For me, writing is all about expression. I want to express myself as clearly and precisely as I can. If the reader misunderstands, I need to feel I did everything on my end to prevent that. Even though it can be an exercise in futility.

I even do that sometimes on this board and I’m fascinated at how people not only misunderstand but take my meaning to be exactly the opposite of what I intended. Once the words leave your fingertips, not much you can do.

Let’s face it, “The night was moist.” was far better than anything else Larry could think of.

It’s not the obsession that’s bad, it’s the mental block that sucks. You know the word is there. Why isn’t it coming to me?

I don’t just scan. There are writers I love who write sentences that have to be explored. They create clever constructions that evoke tremendous emotion or thoughts (or both). I am grateful to writers who sweat over the “perfect word,” and I am in awe of the best of them.

If you rush through a chapter, that can only mean that the writing in the chapter is not good enough for you to pay attention to.
One drives faster through the flat fields of Nebraska than through a stretch of road filled with scenery worth remembering forever.

There was a thread recently in appreciation of this very thing.

Do you want to live in a universe where nobody obsesses over their work? A surgeon? An engineer? An air traffic controller? Why should a writer be any different? How about a composer or a hair stylist? How about a cashier or a proofreader? To be professional is to strive toward perfection, no matter how elusive it may seem, and writing should be no different. The only advantage a writer has is the ability to “undo” that other professions may not allow. I don’t know what the OP does for a living, but I hope he doesn’t “scan” past the details.

Fiction writing (and actually, other sorts of professional writing too) is an extremely competitive business. Other things being equal (of course they never are, but you never know in just what respects they are going to be unequal) the writer who consistently picks the right word or phrase is more likely to get the publishing contract, and more likely to sell books, than the one who does not.

Of course, it is not the only thing that counts by any means, but it counts.

And no, not everybody skims. :rolleyes: I skim non-fiction when I am looking for information (or for the nub of an author’s position or argument), but I read every word of fictional prose, whether the style is fine or not, and I am sure I am not alone.

But it was not published in its pristine scroll form. Some rewriting/editing was done in the five years between the original composition of it and its 1957 publication.

Btw “that’s not writing, it’s (only) typing” was Truman Capote’s review, spoken on David Susskind’s show. The other guests were Norman Mailer and Dorothy Parker. I’ve never seen it; only read about it in a collection of Mailer pieces. I guess it probably doesn’t exist anymore. Too bad.

You can only read this fast when the text is well-written. Writing is like building a highway; it takes a lot of effort to make it so smooth you don’t notice the drive. A poorly chosen word is like a pothole.