Discovering a worldview one “but” at a time
I recently received suggested edits on a manuscript from my publisher and was given a few days to make changes. I felt pretty stoked. I knew the story was polished and I suspected I wouldn’t have a lot to fix. And, in theory, I didn’t.
Except my editor mentioned that I seemed to really, really, REALLY like using “but” in my writing. She was even kind enough to highlight a bunch of them for me. If I’m being honest, numerous pages looked like giant connect-the-dots.
*Rolls eyes, cusses under breath so children don’t hear, and stomps feet*
Okay, okay, I’m grateful…really. I love working with amazing editors. They make my stories sing. Yes, I might be a tiny bit resentful in the moment, but seeing something I’ve worked so hard on get even better is a rush. I mean that.
And, in this case, it was a bit of an eye-opener for me. I spent some time pondering my love of “but.” Painful, sappy, self-indulgent reflection? Yes, please.
I’m a writer. It’s what I do.
Now, you might be saying, so what? Lots of people get stuck on word choice. How many of us have to go back through and eliminate “just” or “really” or “very”? I know I do (and probably should in this article). I also look for too much head-nodding, eyebrow-raising, and shrugging. Lots of shrugging. Ugh.
So I wasn’t that surprised I overlooked a word used with too much frequency. Though I do have a hit list of words to check when I get to that point in my editing. What’s a hit list, you ask? It’s a list of words I know I’m likely to overuse. I check each instance of those words in my work-in-progress and make them justify their existence. If I don’t think a particular hit-list word strengthens the sentence, I get rid of it. Simple.
I’d like to take credit for the hit list, except I can’t. I don’t think Donna Andrews would appreciate it, since I essentially copied the idea from her. If you’ve never read any of Donna’s hilarious, award-winning Meg Langslow mysteries, I highly recommend them. Turns out the lady can also edit like a boss. Who knew? (Well, me obviously, since I made off with her hit list.)
Back to the main point. Why the existential meltdown over “but”? Well, because “but” is a contrast word; it often keeps a sentence from having a definitive meaning. By that I mean it provides a contrast to what is initially said. And I realized that the reason I use “but” isn’t simply because it’s an easy word to throw into the mix.
It’s a worldview.
I, by nature, am not a decisive person. I hesitate to proclaim something as fact, especially if it’s related to human beings. I’m suspicious of a definitive answer and always look for the exception to the rule. There’s probably a reason chemistry is my favorite science, since it’s the science of exception.
I don’t like oppositional dichotomies, such as black/white or good/bad. It’s sometimes annoying for my friends and family because my answer to almost any question is it depends. And here’s another confession. When I first heard of the book Fifty Shades of Grey, I assumed it was a treatise on the importance of having a complex understanding of the world. Needless to say, I was disappointed.
So when my lovely editor pointed out that I overuse “but” in my writing, I couldn’t simply eliminate the majority of them because it was important to the way I see the world. I did pare down my usage, switch to some synonyms, and rework sections as I could. It took hours. I agonized. I fretted. I deleted and then reinserted. I grumbled. Repeatedly.
Finally, I resubmitted my draft. I suspect when my editor gets back to me, she’ll only be concerned with whether I eliminated my overuse of the word. And that’s as it should be.
But, for me, it was a revelation.