Posted by: Kristen Ridley | September 27, 2010

Do you write with lightning, or lightning bugs?

lightingI’ve read several biographies of Mark Twain. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that, where writing is concerned, Twain is my hero! Less for his fiction writing than for his personal writings, actions, and approach to life. Mark Twain was loved and loathed, in roughly equal measure if the biography I liked best (“Mark Twain: A Life” by Ron Powers) is to be trusted. Twain (or if you’re a purist, Samuel Clemens) was alternately sarcastic, sweet, witty, caustic, funny, outrageous, and sometimes, downright nasty.

He wrote things that were brilliant, and he also wrote things that got him run out of whatever town he was in at the time (and he lived in a variety of US towns and cities and some in Europe). But, the one thing he rarely did, was settle when it came to words. He often agonized over the pieces he wrote, determined that the words he used would be the perfect ones to express exactly what he wanted to say. The bio references a quote by Twain, that I’d read and forgotten, but which could easily be adopted as a motto of the corporate communicator:

“The difference between the right word, and the almost right word, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I have that same obsession with using just the right word. Maybe that’s why I have such an affinity for Twain. It drives me nuts when I’m writing something and I know that the word I have isn’t quite perfect to express exactly what I’m trying to get across. In those moments, I will hunt and claw around the inside of my head (and to try to find the right word before I can go on. I know that sounds a bit obsessive, and it is definitely a challenge in a corporate environment, where I am always doing 15 things at the same time and everything was due yesterday. But I just can’t help myself! I fell in love with the English language when I was a very little girl listening to my parents tell me marvellous stories about fairies, and wizards, and the lives of other little girls in faraway places. Those stories were as magical as they were because the authors used the perfect words to enthrall me, terrify me, or make me giggle.

Sometimes the realities of being a business communicator mean that we simply do not have the luxury of time to consider, find, and use the perfect words all the time. Sometimes we have to settle for the almost right word or the “lightning bug.” I’m cranky when that happens to me, but I’d be lying if I said I’ve never settled for close but not quite “it”.

My reaction to those situations is to redouble my efforts to read, to talk with other communicators, and to learn about the language so I have more words at my disposal next time. Because, despite the fact that we are writing business messages, we are just as susceptible to the ramifications of using the almost right words. “Almost” can be the difference between getting an employee’s buy-in and support for a company initiative or not, between helping a customer to decide to buy the product or not, between mitigating the public’s reaction to an issue your company is involved in, or not. The right word matters!

So, while I will happily cop to being obsessive/compulsive when it comes to wanting to use the absolutely right word as often as humanly possible, I also think there’s a legitimate business case to be made that there is in fact ROI in that approach to writing, and that the results justify the time necessary to make it happen.

Am I the only one with this particular obsession? Come on, ‘fess up and make me feel better by telling me I’m not alone and others battle against using lightning bugs, when only lightning will do?!

P.S. If you’re interested in reading more of Mark Twain’s writing, my personal favourite book is: “The wit and wisdom of Mark Twain



  1. Amen! You know I’m right there with you, Kristen. So much so that I cited the same quote in my post on the importance of writing in comms 😉

  2. Thanks for the support Rueben! It’s always nice to know you’re not alone.

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