Thursday, October 13, 2022

Just A Few Wee Tics, by Catriona

CRAFT: Most of us have a writing tic or two, a word we overuse, a tendency to start sentences with the same word, a motion every character makes. Do you have one or a few, and, if so, what do you do to guard against them?

Well, Susan talked about "just" on Monday, and Gabriel talked about "that" on Tuesday. Then Cathy talked about ... yesterday. And here I come today, one of "that"'s "just"'s and "..."'s most enthusisastic practitioners and loyal friends.

I do know the rule saying "just" and "that" are crutch words. I'm not sure I believe it. I tend to wonder if the rule itself isn't used a crutch sometimes. You know - "ten top tips for good writing", "trap door to success this way".

The thing about "just", for example, is that it's an invisible word, until someone points it out. I'm not at all sure it would bug anyone who hadn't heard the rule about not using it. 

To turn to an analogy: (some) British people of a certain age don't rinse our dishes. We let the Fairy Liquid dry in and think nothing of it. When people find out, they sometimes decide they must be able to taste the residue. But no one has ever said "What's that taste?" and worked out that it came from unrinsed dishes. Similarly, I'm not sure anyone has ever wondered why a piece of writing feels bad and narrowed it down to the word "just" then gone to Google and been astounded to find a community waiting there.

Yeah, nah.

Or, maybe all of that is bunk and it's just that "just" doesn't bug me for some reason. "That" doesn't either. I get irritated (or flooded with helpless empathy, depending on mood) when I see sentences that needed a "just" but have had it amputated. Or sentences that are mangled because someone was trying to avoid a "that". These writers aren't following the (I'd say arbitrary) rules, so much as they are being flattened by them.

So maybe it's sheer cussedness and a childish resentment about being told what to do that makes me insist on hanging on to my "just"s and "that"s (and ...). Added to the fact that, as I say, they are invisible words (till they're not. Like how I never noticed the problem with house hunters, on Escape to the Country, coming into a room and gushing about how flooded with light it is, for a railway cottage, or an oasthouse, or a subterranean bunker. Then, in the summer, my mum snorted and shouted at the telly "All the lamps are on!" They were. They always are. I can't unsee it now.)

Thing is, I can be persuaded that I overuse a word when it isn't invisible. Or - to take the most common example from my writing - a word that's invisible to me but not to others (and not because they went on a course and heard a rule). 

I'm Scottish. [pause for recovery] And we say "wee" a lot. It's a modifier to make things less extreme or combative - Can you move over a wee bit, please? It's a hedger to help soften blows - I'm just going to stick a wee needle into you. It adds affection and intimacy - you're a wee sweetheart, aren't you?

But only if you're Scottish. Or Northern Irish. English James in Derry Girls, when they are all being asked to howl their rage into the night sky (trendy new English teacher), shouts "You people use "wee" to talk about things that aren't actually all that SMALL!!!"

We do. And that's fine when it's just us. But when I write a Scottish voice to be read by an English or US audience, it lands on them (you) as it lands on James: like a mystifying overuse of an extremely visible and also pointless word. I used to wait to be asked, but now I do a wee-ectomy on my draft before it leaves the house. In the book I just sent to my agent, there were 135 "wee"s in draft one and but only 47 in draft five. We'll see if they survive. 

I had a long hard think about what my other tics might be. One thing I came up with was: happy endings. And there's never going to be an -ectomy there. You can prise my hopeful and redemptive last sentence out of my cold dead laptop.




Wendall Thomas said...

Love this. I had a long-running argument with my first Cyd Redondo editor about "just," which she kept removing from Cyd's dialogue. I tried to explain that, aside from the rhythm thing, she had spent her whole life trying to get permission/get something past her overprotective family and terms like "it's just for tonight," "it's just five dollars," it's just over the bridge," etc. were in her DNA. My new editor understands this.

Catriona McPherson said...

I mean, it's probably best to know that "just" is a shibboleth - I truly believe it's no more than that - so you can snap back when someone comes at you. Same deal with fancy speech tags: best to be ready for the scoffing if you decide to use them.

Catriona McPherson said...

I still remember the first time I heard a workshop leader pass on the "down with 'that'" rule. I asked her, reasonably I thought, which "that" she meant since there are three. Blind panic for her - she didn't know Miortification for me - I would never deliberately try to trip someone up like that. This was YEARS ago and I still shudder.

Josh Stallings said...

Invisible words, yes wish I’d heard that before writing tomorrow’s post. (Side note: I always wait to read the others minds posts until I’ve finished writing mine. You’re too brilliant, and I would just post, “What they said.”) And you are wise to point out we don’t notice invisible words as a problem until they are pointed out to us and then the “bug” us. I’m blessed by being self taught so I never knew most of these rule, I am curses by being self taught because I take editors rules as sold facts, not educated opinions.
As for wee, I personally can not get enough of it. Maybe you could add a wee bit more wees in special wee edition of your books.

Think how the simple three letters could soften diplomacy, “If you drop a wee bomb on that cit, we’ll need to place a wee sanction on your economy..”

Keep fighting the good fight!

James W. Ziskin said...

I agree 100%. On my last book, I hunted down the “justs” and tried to cut or replace them, sometimes with “only.” What a silly idea. In the end, I was left with 89 “justs” and 149 “onlys”!!! Live and let write. If we all wrote the same way what a boring world it would be. And I’ll wager no reader cares about these crutch words. I don’t. They’re words, the same as “the” and “a.” And I don’t hear people complaining that there are too many of those. Sayin’. (Notice the word I cut?)


Catriona McPherson said...

Josh, my favourite ever "wee" was someone describing a horrific birthing experience as "a wee forceps job and a few wee stitches". Jim - "Sayin'" Hahahahaha.

Ann said...

I personally love your wees. 😘

Anonymous said...

Susan here. Our very own blog won’t let me comment by name. Just saying. We write how we write and as long as words stay invisible or are one our characters’ tics, we’re free. I use just a lot in my speech, but was trained by one of my publishers to become painfully aware of it. In my writing, at least, it’s frequently not needed. But you, Catriona and Jim, are rock stars so carry on!