In one book I read about writing, “Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” the author tries to teach you how to write with clarity and grace, but among the principles which he sets forth, not one is given about word-choice. It is as if the author is saying that following a number of rules will automatically result in clear and graceful writing. But although it may result in clear writing, I don’t see how it can result in graceful writing, unless among those rules there are some about word-choice. For things like grammatical shape and parallelism are great, but by themselves they seem to be limited. For it is the sound of the words themselves that create rhythm and give writing a certain sound. Am I wrong in thinking that word-choice is important, and not only things like shape and parallelism?
There are occasions where word choice is very important. These usually come where you are trying to express a new idea or make a distinction that people do not usually make. Each word takes the reader's mind down a certain well worn path and if you want to get them off that path you may have to choose your words very carefully. (I spent two hours last night talking with a colleague who is reviewing my new book about whether my use of the word "rhetoric" was giving the reader the idea I am after.)
But for the most part, no, word choice is not the key to good writing. The average person gets through the day with only a few hundred words at most. Ideas and experiences are not conveyed by individual words but by combining words to tell stories. Clear and graceful writing is about how you combine ordinary words, not about the selection of esoteric words.
Yes, to combine ordinary words successfully you have to choose the right ordinary words to suit your meaning. But these ordinary words come so readily to our minds that we barely think about them individually as we write them down. The words flow from the thought quite naturally.
It is far more common for inexperienced writers to struggle with how to combine and order words in prose. While the ordinary words we use in prose are the same ordinary words we use in daily conversation, the grammatical structures we use in prose are not a mirror of those we use in conversation. Beginning writers are less used to forming these constructs therefore, and often need some guidance, such as the book you have read.
Where people usually get into trouble with writing is thinking that written work requires the use of highly complex grammatical structures and esoteric words. Thus most good writing instruction is more about encouraging simplicity in structures and word choices. Where advice on word choice is given (as, for instance, in George Orwell's Politics and the English Language, which everyone who wants to be a writer should read and treasure, the writer is urged to pick the simplest, clearest, and generally most Anglo Saxon word that will fit the case.
Depends on what you are writing and the imagery you want to portray. Ugly words may be chosen on purpose to fit a personality that don't fit into what you would call grace and clarity. It also depends on what you are writing. Poetry may very well need clarity, grace, and appropriate word choice to achieve the desired affects. A novel about war probably does not need grace or beautiful word choices as war in itself is ugly and harsh. Of course there is always the exception of romanticizing war.
In the end words make the cake taste a little sweeter, but without the structures and rules that go into what makes a good sentence, the cake turns into a pile of mush. The cake may taste sweet, but it won't look appealing at all.