Thursday, February 2, 2012

Guest Wildcard: The Just Culprit, or the Culprit Just?


Today I have the privilege of welcoming a very important person to me. He's a gifted teacher, preacher, and as you'll soon learn, writer. With many years of experience behind him (I'm not sure if he'd appreciate me saying how many), he today delves into one of the sneakiest adverbs. So, with no further, may I introduce my fantastic dad, Warren Hight. (And because everyone loves giveaways, he's featuring one of those, too!)

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I was marking an assignment the other day, a book review. The student had written that the author “in the first chapter just laid out the basic facts.” The basic facts in this case were foundational to later steps the author went on to develop. I stopped because something jarred within me as I read it.

If the basic facts were essential to what followed, how in any possible reading of them could the author just lay them out? That little word had robbed his sentence of all its power. The author laid out the basic facts, nothing just about it. It was intentional, it was necessary.

I remember years ago I was attending a chapel service and during the notices the speaker stopped short and said, “Bother, I used that word.” What word? I had to think back over what he had said. It was this same little culprit. An adverb, I believe. And I have been told by the owner of this blog site that a writer ought to avoid adverbs—and clich├ęs—like the plague.

Yet I find myself saying it all the time—and then correcting myself; because if it’s worth doing or saying it’s worth not just doing or just saying! “What are you up to?” “Just writing.” Not meaning, exclusively focussed on a writing. Not meaning, go away I’m busy. Meaning, oh, it’s not so important, I don’t think you’d really be interested. Writing Fire suggests passion, determination. Nothing just about that, you know!

Now, I don’t even need to argue that just is a very good word—perhaps even one that any character in any story could justly own. Just and true, noble; or, “Oh, that things were just” (we can come to terms with unfair, eventually); and, of course, when you have just finished something, meaning only now have you completed what you were doing—who can fault that? But when I short change the labour, discounting the noble intent, this is what I abhor, and abhor in myself as often as it slips out. “I just wanted to give you a call,” and we sound somehow apologetic.

The Just So StoriesI am awed to think that writers and authors will read this; I wonder if your characters let slip the occasional ‘just’ without thinking? I suppose a character saturated in the argot of some levels of conversational culture will accurately reflect this tendency of ours, and be the better drawn character for it! But story characters are often less lazy than we are in real life, and the words of their speech are born of due deliberation.

My admiration goes to Nick for his initiative with this blog, and my thanks to him for entertaining the idea of me posting a “wild-card” blog. I just hope he’ll publish it. And if he does, by way of thanks, I’ll have a copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories sent to a random commenter.

23 comments:

  1. That was....JUST delightful!
    haha no, I jest. It was very true, I think its an intuitive thing to not want people to know all about what we're doing. When they ask we reply with just because it is acts as a safeguard...its says "there is nothing wrong with, nothing exciting about or nothing worth knowing what im doing...it is just (exclusively) my business."

    Scott Barry

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    1. Thanks Scott,
      Yes, 'just' can imply there's a lot going on that we're not ready, for whatever reason, to divulge. People understand that, I guess.

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  2. Hahaha . . . Guilty as charged! I have a character who uses 'just' a LOT. It's part of his character, but I do need to go back and make sure there aren't better words he could be using.

    Just so stories are good. They're on my mom's reading requirements list. I think we have something like two copies. :D Not that having two copies of books is unusual in my house. We have multiples of several series, such as The Chronicles of Narnia (three of those, I think, actually), and The Hobbit.

    Sorry . . . Randomness. :D

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    1. Hi Becki,
      I was introduced to Kipling's Just So Stories by my dad when I was only three or four. I have loved those stories ever since.

      Delete
  3. 'Just' is a very sneaky word. I tend to use it a lot in dialogue when I'm writing. Thankfully I think it's allowed there. Generally when I say something like 'I'm just writing' I don't want to get into details. I don't want to explain everything. I guess it's the easiest answer, especially when you're right into the swing of things. People generally get the message that I'm busy right at that moment. Bad as the word is, it does have it's uses.

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    1. Very cool comment, Imogen.
      It would be fun to read a post in defence of the word just!

      Delete
  4. I find it amusing that you chose to giveaway Just So Stories in a blog post all about the misuse of the word 'just.' I know that was probably intentional, but... still. Haha.

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    1. Hi Emily,
      The idea didn't occur to me until I had nearly finished writing the post, but it did seem fitting. Thanks for reading the post and for your comment. :-)

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  5. I overuse "just" in writing. I delete it when I edit. I believe I also overuse it when I speak.

    I've read Kipling, but I haven't read an entire collection of his stories. I wonder what makes them "just so".

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    1. Hi Medeia,
      Great question. I love what Kipling does with words. "Led go, you are hurtig be" is one of my favourite expressions from "The Elephant's Child" in the Just So Stories. I also love his poem "If" which I came across as a teenager.

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  6. Nick, how fantastic of you to feature your Dad on your blog! I love it! And what a thought-provoking, intelligent article. Warren, I loved when you wrote— "Story characters are often less lazy than we are in real life, and the words of their speech are born of due deliberation." — So good!

    And I'm glad you reminded me of Kipling's Just So Stories—I've been wanting to read them, but had forgotten until I read your post.

    Thanks, guys!

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    1. It's been a neat experience for me to appear on Nick's blog. Thanks for your comment, Brenda. Enjoy the Stories, whenever you get to read them.

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  7. Oh, 'just' is one of my killers. Before anything goes off to my agent or editor I run it through a program called Cliche Cleaner that picks out the stuff I've overused. 'Just' and 'a little' (which can serve the same, unfairly diminishing purpose) are always there. You've hit the nail on the head -- it's not only that 'just' pads out what should be sleek sentences, it's also that it diminishes deeds that really don't deserve it!

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    1. Hi Amie,
      Thanks for that. I love the care with with which writers use words. After I had written my post, that phrase 'le mot juste' came to my mind. I looked it up to see where it came from and found a story there!

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  8. Like Emily, I was amused by your choice of book to give away: "Just" So Stories. :)

    Interesting post. I use AutoCrit to weed out my excess "just"s, although sometimes I find it makes dialogue more natural if I leave it in--amazing how often some people use the word!

    P.S. Found you through Lynda Young's Aussie BBQ. Now following you!

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  9. Just and very are the two words I have to watch out for in my writing. I only knew that just often didn't sound right, nice to have an explanation as to why :-)

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  10. Hello! My first visit, will visit you again. Seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed your posts. Congrats for your work. If you wish to follow back that would be great I'm at http://nelsonsouzza.blogspot.com
    Thanks for sharing!

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  11. Unless "just" is being said by someone is the course of dialog, 99.9% of the time, it's one of those words that should send up a red flag when editing.

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  12. Great post. Like Imogen said, when I say something like "I'm just writing," I really mean, "I'm just writing, so you don't need to ask any questions about it, because I'd rather keep writing." My MC does tend to use it in conversation, though, and that's one word I always have to watch for, along with "kind of" and "that."

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  13. I just remembered that you had written this guest post, and have just finished reading the article. Nice blog. (Another poorly used word - perhaps the subject of your next guest blog!)

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