If there’s one single thing that’s improved my writing (other than practice), it’s becoming aware of just, that pesky, useful nuisance of an adverb.
Just is on my mind because I’ve just (!) finished spending a big chunk of the morning going through Mel, the third book in the Calder Creek series, seeking out and destroying just wherever I can.
Think about this little word for a minute. We don’t really notice it, but it’s everywhere. It has multiple meanings and uses, and sometimes it’s exactly the word we need. Sometimes it’s not. I’m sure I’m not the only writer out there who has a propensity to overuse it. I have a few other seek-and-destroy words and phrases, too, like beginning sentences with and or but, but nothing has crisped up my writing like eliminating the overwhelming number of justs in my text.
Here’s an overview of the questions I ask when I’m on the hunt for just.
Dictionary.com gives these definitions for the adverb just:
- within a brief preceding time, but a moment before;
- exactly or precisely;
- by a narrow margin; barely;
- only or merely; and
- actually, really, positively.
1. How about “I just spoke to him.” You could eliminate just with some sentence modification, like, “I spoke to him a minute ago.” In terms of dialogue, to me the former sounds more casual than the latter, so rely on your characters and the context.
2. “This arrangement is just about perfect.” Change it to, “This arrangement is almost perfect,” and you have the same meaning. In this case, though, you need to consider the distinctive voice of your character. There are two ‘just abouts’ left in Mel. I left them because they sounded right for the character speaking. Writing is an art, after all! On the other hand, if the sentence was, “This day is just horrible,” I think you might question whether the ‘just’ does any good at all.
3. “You just missed her.” Can you change this bit of dialogue to get rid of just? You could try something like, “She left about thirty seconds ago,” or the more blunt, “You missed her.” Test it against your scene and see what works.
4. “It’s just that I really wanted to go to a movie.” You could change it to, “But I really wanted to go to a movie,” or, “I really wanted to go to a movie,” but to me they carry a slightly different emotional load. Is it close enough to the same in the context of your story to make the change?
5. In a dialogue, my character might say, “I just thought you’d understand.” Is there any fundamental difference between that and “I thought you’d understand”? I don’t think so; or at least not enough to leave in the extra word.
In going through my manuscript, I probably removed two-thirds of the justs. The first time I did this, with Seducing Adam, I couldn’t believe how much crisper the dialogue sounded. The whole book came more into focus.
So, search out your justs. Love the ones that belong there – but question every one! And don’t be surprised if there are far more than you expected.
(This has been a look at one of the exciting ways a writer spends her time. Honestly, does this qualify as a life? If you’re a writer, you accept that this type of morning is one of the facts of the writing life, so you might as well embrace it, laugh at it, enjoy it. At least know that it’s one step in producing the best book you can.)