When Adverbs Attack: Why “just,” “only,” and “simply” can be a writer’s nightmare

1418126_blank_notepad_4Yesterday, I wrote about sentence structure and how you can strengthen your writing by avoiding the word “it” when it’s not clearly taking the place of a noun mentioned beforehand. Among tons of great comments on the post, one really stuck out to me. Natasha, who runs a blog at http://betweenthebinding.com, noted that, “overusing ‘it’ really makes a difference in someone’s writing. I’m going to be even more conscious of word usage now. I feel the same way about ‘only’ ‘like’ and ‘just.’”

I want to talk today about using only and just, and also simply, because Natasha has a great point when she mentions OVERUSING these words.

You see, these are fine words. They’re synonyms, and more or less interchangeable (when you use just as an adverb). You can certainly throw them into a sentence on occasion. The big problem comes from overusing them. They’re tough to use in moderation, and once you form a habit of using such adverbs, that habit’s difficult to break. You can quickly find yourself with an infestation of these buggers, locating them multiple times per paragraph. (I’m serious. I’ve seen it.) They’ll spread everywhere…. your emails, your fiction, your blog…. Nothing you write will be safe from the swarm.

Besides the temptation to overdo things and to hoard these words in your precious paragraphs, you’ll find another problem concerning only,  just, and simply. It’s not that it’s wrong to use them. It isn’t. Many times, it’s just unnecessary.

Everyone knows that one of the major tasks of editing is cutting redundancies. Oftentimes, the adverbs in question–which writers think are adding clarity and emphasis to a sentence–are just adding clutter. Here are some examples:

  • She wanted to keep dating James, but juggling the relationship along with her job and his baggage was just too difficult.
  • I’m fine. I’m just tired, but once I get a cup of coffee I’ll be more alert.
  • I don’t mean to criticize. I’m only saying that we can make things run faster, even though they’re going well already.

Look, now, at how unnecessary the adverbs are:

  • She wanted to keep dating James, but juggling the relationship along with her job and his baggage was too difficult. (Too there tells the reader everything s/he needs to know.
  • I’m fine. I’m tired, but once I get a cup of coffee I’ll be more alert. (It’s clear this person is tired enough that the fatigue visible to other people…. Saying s/he is “fine” implies the “just” in “just tired”).
  • I don’t mean to criticize. I’m saying that we can make things run faster, even though they’re going well already. (Maybe this is just me, but this feels less defensive in tone without the “only.”)
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34 responses to “When Adverbs Attack: Why “just,” “only,” and “simply” can be a writer’s nightmare

  1. Really loving your articles! Already finding places in my writing where I can start cleaning things up.

    • Thank you, Sarah! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog!!! I hope you continue to find it useful. I have a lot of fun putting it together, and it makes all the work worthwhile when people say it helps them 🙂

  2. You make a great point about how those words are overused.
    One question I have is, what about in first person writing? I think that might be a slightly different story depending on the person narrating, how he talks would influance how often certain words are used, right? I’ve been wondering about that more and more as I near the end of my novel.

    • That is a GREAT point, wow! In first person writing you’re dealing with a different situation, because you’re writing in a character’s voice. What that character would say/write–mistakes, problems, and all–is what goes on the page. 🙂

  3. You’re right! I’m just sayin’…

  4. I have typed and deleted the word “just” so many times. I can’t stop myself from typing it. I don’t know why. It just happens. 🙂

  5. Now just wait a minute here, I only use those words when absolutely necessary. Lol. Those words are not the ones I have a big problem with, mine are the words ‘the,’ ‘that,’ ‘this,’ and ‘would.’ This is a great post illustrating that common mistake so many make in overusing the words you’ve mentioned. I found it helpful.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it!!!! I consider “would” a special case, as it’s how English forms the conditional verb tense, and sometimes, that tense is required over a period of description, if that helps! “That” and “This” drive me NUTS in my own writing, though. You definitely aren’t alone!

  6. Interesting issue! I can see what you mean, but I don’t think I agree completely. When I look at your three example sentences, I prefer the original ones with the just and only. You say they don’t provide any information, but I think they do. When someone says they’re ‘I’m just tired’, it means they don’t consider being tired a problem. When someone says ‘I’m tired’, the same flavour is either absent or the reverse (being tired is a problem), depending on how one reads it. Similarly, ‘I’m only saying’ implies a kind of placating the addressee, whereas ‘I am saying’ is more confident. I guess you might be right about ‘just too difficult’ when it comes to meaning, but it just ‘flows’ better in my opinion.

    I do agree that these words shouldn’t be used too often. Use them where they really add a flavour, not where they ‘just’ fill space. I think I’m going to check my manuscript tonight… 😉

    • Thanks for your different perspective! I definitely agree that “like” and “Just” aren’t always problems, especially in dialogue. Mainly when they are overused in my writing do I take issue.

  7. Lorraine Marie Reguly

    I only wanted to say just how much I enjoyed this article! (Heh heh!)

  8. I’m guilty of overusing those at times. One of the problems is that they come out so naturally as a way to emphasis a statement. I also don’t notice the redundancy because 10 pages (3 if writing slow) late, I don’t remember using the words beforehand.

  9. Victoria, I am honored you mentioned me/my comment in your blog post! I was thrilled to see it in my email this morning. Thank you for linking to my blog as well. Made my day 🙂

  10. Another great post. It’s funny how those unnecessary words sneak into our writing without us noticing! This is a great reminder to keep our writing as clear and concise as possible. It all goes back to the simple instruction from The Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.”

  11. Reblogged this on Nature’s Abhorred Vacuum.

  12. I’ve always overused the word ‘just’. I’m so conscious of it, I always edit everything I write really carefully. You’re correct when you say it’s a hard habit to break!

  13. Word Cruft; I hate it. I wrote a similar blog post myself the other week. My personal enemies are ‘pretty much’ and ‘actually’. Yet I find myself using them and similar words in my daily speech. Like you said, it’s hard.

  14. Pingback: Tighten Up! | donna everhart

  15. Pingback: MBA & University Admissions: Can One Word Lead to Rejection? In a Word, YES! « English Language Communications Consulting

  16. What? Are you scanning what I’ve written to gather examples of what not to do? There’s a plethora of no-nos in my articles from which to choose (which I’m learning as I read your articles). 😉

    Thank you ever so much for your helpful tips. I’ll put them to use.

  17. Thanks again! Great tips for me as a new author. I need to incorporate the overuse of anything I find myself using too many times.

  18. Pingback: “The Adverb Suddenly” ~ by J T Fisher | Authors Helping Authors Resource Site

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