Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing tip: Just, Scrivener, and me

I'm starting a new feature: Writing tips! Yes I hear you saying: Aren't there enough bad writing tips from under-published novelists out there? Why are you adding to the noise?

The answer it: I don't know. Except that I haven't seen this tip before, and I think it will help people.

But, before we get to our writing tip, let's start with a plug for Scrivener, the best app for writing novels I've ever used. Throw away MS Word, get yourself into Scrivener. It has tons of tools for the way writers build things - outlining, chapters, word targets, and ways to store research material on characters, settings, and locations. Plus when you're done you can export to dozens of formats including several varieties of e-Book. It's the best 40 bucks you'll ever spend.

Anyway, I was using Scrivener's word count feature, which is awesome. It's under Project -- Text Statistics. Here, you get a rundown of every word you used in your manuscript, and their frequency. I was wondering if there were any words I overused, and wow was I.

It turns out I have a nasty habit of over-using the word 'just.' It's my fault, absolutely. But just has so many meanings, I end up using it as shorthand for about ten different phrases. In all, I'd used just 180 times in a 90,000 word manuscript. (that's 0.2% of the words in my manuscript. Well over the legal limit.)

What's so weird about this is I almost never use the word in its most prominent definition: "based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair." Just is, as you probably know, the root of the word justice. But not for me! I only go for the five or six below that, which break down to: exactly, recently, barely, simply, really, or positively. With so many meanings, I also apparently use it as filler, whenever I think a sentence needs a pause. And with all those meanings, the justs pile up fast:

"He was just fifteen when he met her. She was just on the edge of the dance floor. The last song had just ended and the light hit her face just right, and he was in love. Just like that. He walked to her, just because, like he had nothing better to do. But what did he want from her. Just to dance? He didn't think so."

So I've lost all trust in this word. It's a dull word that instead of carving meaning out, smears it around.

My penance was to do a find and replace on the entire manuscript, weeding out the unJUSTified justs.

What I found was that in many cases all I had to do was delete it. It was sitting there like a speedbump in the sentence. Which is obvious. When in all your writing classes did anyone say: "Put a just in there. I think this sentence would be stronger with a fudge word." Nope. You never heard that advice.

Here are sample sentences for the many meanings of just, and the replacements you might want to use

exactly:  He knew just what she meant.
precisely: The cat stopped at just the moment his feet hit the floor.
in the same way: I did it just how you told me to.
simply: They just wanted a cup of sugar.
only: There was just one minute to go.
might as well: So he figured he should just go to the movies
barely: There was just enough toothpaste for one brushing of the teeth.
nothing more than: It was just a passing fancy, not love at all.

Some are harder to replace, of course:
in the recent past: I was just there five minutes ago.
(colloquially for a certain way): He tucked in his feet just so.

Anyway, I did a vigorous just-weeding. After half an hour, I'd reduced my justs from 180 down to an acceptable 80 or so (in the ballpark with 'make' and 'can't'. Because sometimes, frankly it's just the right word for the job!

Let's condense all this to the Writing Tip: Be careful about overusing words, especially in clusters. I sometimes go through first drafts and see six Justs sitting there in one paragraph. And it isn't always the word just, either. It could be any word: Gotta, or said, or a color - I once had two characters with a gravelly laugh within 5 pages of each other, for instance.

So, What words do you overuse? How do you weed them out? Comments are welcome.

PS: I'm not alone in overusing this word. Check out the Google chart on nGram. For the past fifty years, just has been taking over the English lexicon:

Here's a better link to that chart for all you stat-heads out there.


crfs said...

I love Scrivener, but I didn't know about the text statistics tool. Thanks!
Now I'm going to be much more self conscious about "just".

Mike Ramberg said...

Thanks. Be careful, you may find yourself over-correcting. I've been wondering if I was too ruthless with my edits now.

crfs said...

I checked the manuscript I'm working on. I used the word "off" way more than I would have expected.