The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

—Mark Twain

Mark Twain seated at his desk, looking upward as if in thought. He seems to have been interrupted while writing. The room shown in the old black and white photograph seems bare, but there are several vases filled with flowers on Twain's desk.

Source: “Mark Twain Pondering at Desk,” Wikimedia

Carefully read through this quote by American author and humorist Mark Twain. What is he saying about diction or word choice? Twain clearly means there's a huge difference between the "almost-right and the "right" words. But carry his metaphor a bit further.  “Almost right words” are like little bugs producing light that twinkles off and on. These words produce messages that are “almost” clear to a reader, but don’t quite illuminate what’s being said. “Right words” are like powerful forks of lightning that light up the sky for several minutes; these words shed powerful light on the writing and say precisely what the writer means.

With that in mind, follow these steps to complete the next exercise:

  1. Read the sentences below.
  2. Click to highlight words that stand out to you—those words and phrases that are descriptive and specific and help to illuminate what is being said.
  3. When you finish clicking and highlighting, go back and place your cursor over each highlighted phrase. A pop-up box will explain how the phrase illuminates what is being said.

  1. She looked at me, her eyes darkening with rage, and hissed, “Save it.”

  2. The corners of his mouth began to turn up, and the room was suddenly filled with the sound of laughter.

  3. Darkness spread across the skies and the air became heavy; in the distance a wolf howled.

  4. “Oh well” he sighed, “no harm done.” He affectionately nudged my shoulder but proceeded to cut me down with a sneer: “Let’s just call it a day.”

  5. Not looking anyone in the eye, she set her jaw and refused to say what she knew.