They’re just not all that important.*
I’m in a mood to commit writer heresy today. So here it is:
I don’t really care about the words.
Let me repeat that: I don’t care about the words. On an individual level they really don’t matter to me. Neither does the punctuation. Even the meaning is negotiable, at least at the sentence level and paragraph level.
What I care about is the story. It doesn’t matter to the story whether something is ebon or charcoal or plain old black. Any of those or none of those might serve depending on the surrounding words, the tone, and what I want the reader to take away from the story. Even then it’s not a fixed value.
When I first write the sentence containing the word meaning (black) I could use any one of dozens of words, depending on what tastes right, or nearly right, in the moment. If I really cared about the word as a unit, this is a point where I might end up slowed down or even stopped for a long time while I found the exact right word. But knowing that it’s the story that matters, not the specific word, I can just go ahead and drop in something that approximates what I need and move on.
Sometimes the initial choice is the word that I end up using. Sometimes it gets changed on the second pass, where I move through as a reader and try to make the whole thing feel smooth. Sometime the word goes away along with the sentence or paragraph that holds it as I realize that (black) would be better placed earlier or later, or implied, or that the reader doesn’t need to know, or that (blue) would serve the story better.
It’s not until my very last polish pass before sending something out that I start to get nitpicky about the words. Even then I don’t really sweat the details too much. I have been at this for a while and I know that nothing is final until it has gone to press, and even then there might be later editions.
My agent might ask for changes. My editor might ask for changes. I might write a sequel or a related piece before the original is published, and that might necessitate changes. I might put it aside for a time and come back and make changes.
All of those changes will affect the words, shifting meaning, nudging flow, altering tone, restructuring scene and paragraph and sentence.
I don’t really care about the words.
I care about the story.
2013 update (adding in material from my comments on the original post):
1) For me looking at the words is all about story, not about phrasing. Attention paid to the words is a side effect.
2) My contention would be that story is the sum of words at the aggregate level and that too many writers spend too much time worrying about words on the individual level, focusing on making a specific sentence work exactly right rather than focusing on how groups of sentences go together to convey information.
I write poetry as well as novels, and for poetry I care about the individual words in a way that I don’t at novel length. The process of writing poetry is fundamentally different for me. It’s much harder and orders of magnitude more time consuming, because with poetry I’m looking at things at the individual word level as opposed to the paragraph or scene level.
With a novel I can usually find a half dozen ways to convey a bit of information any of which is roughly as good (in my eyes) as any other.
3) Here’s another way to look at it. Write a novel in German. Get three really good translators, one English, one American, one Australian. Have them all translate the original novel into English. There will be significant differences in the words from translation to translation, but the fundamentals of the story should come out reasonably close. That core story is what I really care about.
4) Don’t get married to one particular word or phrase.
Books aren’t static creations, not until the very last instant before going to press. Writing is a dynamic process and losing sight of that is a good way to tie an anchor around your ankle.
*Your results may vary. All normal restrictions apply. Caveat emptor. There are a thousand ways and one to write to a book, every one right. Etc. etc. etc.