Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How One Word Can Impact the Strength of Your Query

When coaching my assistants and other agents on how to approach editors I've always been very particular about word choice. The word "just" has been a pet peeve of mine for a number of years. It's a word I've consciously worked to remove from my vocabulary and a word I've encouraged my team to drop.

Imagine my surprise when I came across this article written about Ellen Petry Leanse and her distaste for the word "just".

I agree with everything she says. Using "just" takes away our power. We're no longer marching into someone's office to tell them we've got something they have to read. We're now slinking in to ask meekly if they think it's worth reading and, frankly, giving them permission to reject it rather than telling them they'd be making a mistake by not reading it.

We are word people, it's our job to embrace the power a single word might have and use it to our advantage. Take a look at some examples of publishing correspondence with or without the word "just." You tell me which is stronger.

Dear Editor:
I'd like to ask if you have just a few minutes to discuss my very important concerns regarding these edits.

Dear Editor:
I'd like set up some time to discuss my very important concerns regarding these edits.


I am writing to tell you about the terrific new thriller I've written.
I am just writing to tell you about the terrific new thriller I've written. 

I'm following up on the submission I sent back in January.
I'm just following up on the submission I sent in January. 

Take a look at your query, at all the professional correspondence you have written. Let's work together to eliminate just from our professional vocabulary.



Beth Writes said...

First word to go in my round of edits. It's a weak descriptive word. ...and as my English literature professor friend tells me, "Sounds like a Protestant prayer." ha! Let's make our deeds just and our words more imaginative!

Kate Douglas said...

I had that same reaction when I read Jessica's blog post, Beth--that's one of 'those' words I do a search and destroy on when I finish a manuscript. It fits perfectly when I'm writing, stands out like a sore thumb in revisions. I try not to use it.

E.L. Wagner said...

It's a "voice" or pov word in fiction, though. Obviously, you'd use it in dialog if the character would in that situation. And if it fits the tone of the narrative (because the pov character would use "just" in that situation), I think it makes sense to use it.

This may seem obvious, but I've run across a number of new writers who extrapolate advice or rules aimed at business or non-fiction writing to fiction.

Virginia Anderson said...

Great examples that beautifully illustrate the problem! I do have to agree in part with E. L. Wagner, though. So much depends on context, even with a word like "just." I was recently informed in a writing-group meeting that I may not say "A lot of people . . . " but must say "Many people . . ." In an academic article, I would certainly choose "many," but if I were specifically looking for a breezy, colloquial tone, I might well decide on "a lot of." But you're spot-on with these examples.

John Frain said...

Second! (That is, second the motion.) Eliminate the word that shall not be spoken. Or written.

AJ Blythe said...

I am more conscious of just now than I used to be. Along with that it used to make my ms light up like a sports oval at night when I got MSWord to highlight overused words. I think I use it a lot less now I am aware of it.

Awareness is the key. I remember when I was a kid my Mum got sick of my brothers and I using the word stuff. We'd use it instead of describing something. "I need my stuff" "She messed up her exam because of all that stuff" Drove Mum bonkers. She began correcting us every time we used the word. Made us realise how often it came out of our mouths. Didn't take too long and we'd stopped using it. Even now, if someone says stuff I find it very jarring.

Hollie said...

Angela James has a number of words like just and that, which in most case can be removed from a sentence without changing it.
But you always have to take the situation and the characters into consideration.
If we were writing about my kids all we would have to do is take 'the' out of ever sentence and reduce them all to 4 words and it would be perfect.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

I remember making a conscious decision about a year ago to remove "just" and words like it from my professional communications.

Funny, though, I still use it prolifically in early drafts of my fiction writing, but without the same implications. Eventually I'll purge it from my writing habits altogether...

Sondra Brooks said...

Aaaaaaagggghhhhhh! I have to thank you. Now I'm seeing how often I write just in my work. I do agree, however, that certain characterizations would benefit from such lazy speech.

And may I mention my personal pet peeve? Why does everyone these days have to write "Having said that..." and "That being said..."? Were emptier words ever written? It's like fingernails on a blackboard when people start their sentences in this way.