Most of our writers are currently unavailable for blogging due to black holes of revision, wedding planning or last-minute Craft on Draft prep. So, I’ll be pinch-hitting for the next couple of weeks. Things might get random, y’all. Let’s start with a tic that I have mentioned in the past couple of posts I’ve written.
What is my deal with the word “just”? Did I eat a brain tumor for breakfast?
In the latest version of my novel in progress, I found 243 instances of “just.” How did this happen? Maybe, like Charles Dickens, I dreamt it all and the word manifested itself into my novel.
Or, perhaps Mr. Nobody came in the thick of night and typed the word all over my manuscript.
Is it a bad word or a misunderstood word?
The only reason I’m overanalyzing the use of this word is because some writer on the Internet told me it was bad, the same way that Franzen freaked me out about “comma-then” disease, of which I am afflicted:
“If you use comma-then like this frequently in the early pages of your book, I won’t read any farther unless I’m forced to, because you’ve already told me several important things about yourself as a writer, none of them good.”
I get the desire to correct people. I click ‘Like’ on all those grammar posts that come through my Facebook page. I giggle at typos because they’re funny even though I know it’s something I’m not supposed to do because this is the age of technology and people are busy and fat fingers happen on the keyboard and we should all be Hands across America and not judge others unless they’re immigrants or homosexuals or use big words we don’t understand, okay?!
I mean, keeping track of grammar rules is hard, you guys. That’s why the Chicago Manual of Style exists. Even people like me [insert Farrah Fawcett hair flip] must refer to the Grammar Gods on the regular.
But is the usage of my beloved ‘just’ an indication of my inferior writing skills or a matter of style?
You Say ‘Just’ Like It’s a Bad Thing
Much like my dismay over “comma-then,” my immediate reaction was to go into full-on waste dump removal mode on my manuscript. Mission: eradicate all offending matter. But one cannot simply Find + Replace all instances of a word from a manuscript without a careful review for context. The insertion of ‘just’ can change the tone of a sentence. One false move could toss your character development into a blender of confusion:
Question: You didn’t eat the cupcake?
Meaning: Hmm. Do you hate cupcakes? I don’t like people who hate cupcakes. But then, that means there will be more cupcake for me. Maybe it’s not that you don’t like cupcakes, maybe it’s that you don’t like me. You hate me. I should have never offered you a cupcake.
Question: You didn’t just eat the cupcake?
Answer: If you just ate that cupcake, I will murder you because it is mine. All the cupcakes are mine.
Statement: This is just a guide.
Meaning: You can ignore this.
Statement: This is a guide.
Meaning: This shit is useful and could mean the difference between you walking out of a desert with a bunch of #cactusandme selfies from your hiking adventure or ending up as food for vultures. Pro tip: If you’re talking about important matters like sexual harassment, you should avoid the word “just.”
Question: Was I talking to myself?
Meaning: Mom needs help, psychiatric help.
Question: Was I just talking to myself?
Mom: Mom is about to kick your ass. RUN.
Statement: They died laughing.
Meaning: Is this a real news story or is this The Onion?
… Clearly, I could go on forever. (Hyperbole? Yes.)
What’s a Writer to Do?
Just (YES) because someone on the Internet or a Literary Genius says that you shouldn’t do something doesn’t mean you should take a black and white view and break out the red pen. When it comes to your words, I’d advise sticking firmly in the grey area until you’ve decided whether or not something works for you — the exception being basic grammar, unless you’re some kind of genius who knows how to twist that into something devious and wonderful. Writing is not (I almost inserted “just” here) about the mechanics and correctness alone. As the saying goes, it’s best to know the rules so you can break them. The best music on the page and in audio form is due to those who break the rules.
I use these Internet protestations as a call to action to review my own work to see how I’m handling the so-called offense. Rather than grumble and give up, I have an ongoing list of overused words and personal grammar problems to check in every story.
If you take the time to pick and choose your moments with a word, you will able to answer with confidence when someone questions your usage: