Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I would like to discuss buts. No, not those kind, and not because my kids are going through this phase where every villain from the books they read ends up being renamed to “Poo Poo Butts”. I would like to discuss the innocent conjunction “but”.
We all have our crutch words when we write. Whether they sneak in to our dialogues as borrowings from our own specific way of talking, or into our prose, which ends up cluttering it and acting as a distraction, these words are a natural occurrence for any writer. I’ve discussed how part of my editing process is aimed specifically at weeding out crutch words as much as possible by using word clouds. “Just” is one of mine, for example, and I found during editing that about 70% of the time the word doesn’t actually add anything in terms of meaning, and sentences read much cleaner without it.
“But” on the other hand, seems far less sinister. It’s a lowly conjunction. One would hardly go about trying to eradicate every mention of the word “and” in a story. So what kind of kooky mechanical advice in the same vein as “no adverbs ever under penalty of torture” is this?
I’m not advocating for the elimination of ‘but’ – it’s simply something I’ve noticed I use in my writing as a crutch, specifically for sentence construction. My recent bout of editing, from my novel, to my sci-fi serial to my short stories, made me a little too aware of using the simple addition of ‘but’ to put sentences together. Again, by itself, that’s not a problem. Anyone telling you to never use ‘but’ or to never end your sentence with a preposition are out to lunch, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have awareness of how you construct your complex sentences.
It’s like the classic advice about varying your sentence length. I know for me if I ever encounter three 10-13 word sentences in a row I know I’m in for at least ten minutes of trying to break these up into a more varied rhythm. Same with the use of ‘but’ to build sentences. In one particular short story I’d recently completely, I found three instances of the clause-but-clause sentence in a single paragraph that contained only four other sentences. There’s nothing glaring about writing out a sentence like that, but the human eye and brain is a keen pattern-finding machine, and repetition like this stands out. It feels unnatural, it feels lazy. Try saying three sentences like that in a row, and realize that they need to be spread further apart for that effect to dissipate.
Although it was a little jarring finding this tendency about myself, and adding yet another thing to the ever-growing editing checklist, it’s not entirely surprising why I lean in this particular direction. I find that one of the things I enjoy about my writing is creating contrasts and oxymorons. A lot of this can be found at the micro-level in sentences – a small twist in the direction it was taking, or else created specifically to highlight a juxtaposition. The conjunction ‘but’ is a natural fit for that kind of writing since by its own nature it is intended to create some kind of contrast.
So, with the reason out of the way, let’s not let it become an excuse. None of these contrasts or juxtapositions, as I put it, would land right if the reader was rolling their eyes at another lazily built sentence. So how do we go solving this problem?
The important caveat is again – there’s nothing wrong with using the word, all we’re looking for is breaking apart any clusters of them. The easiest way I found to do this is to search my work for any instance of the Word ‘but’. Newer versions of Word highlight the searched-for word in the entire work, which makes visually scanning pages for clusters really easy. I ignore pretty much every use of the word ‘but’ unless a see several highlights in close proximity. That’s when I stop my quick scrolling and try to figure out how to edit my way out of it.
Sometimes I’m tempted to replace ‘but’ with something similar, like ‘yet’ or ‘though’ and I’m fully aware that this is essentially cheating. So I use this technique sparingly and rather try to pick which of the sentences is the best candidate for revision and focus on that. Usually one, or at most two, sentences from the cluster actually need tweaking, so it’s not the most time-intensive aspect of my editing process.
The best part about editing like this, which is what I found in my campaign against “just”, is that this leaks into the writing process as well. I find myself less inclined to use “just” as I write, and I expect I’ll experiences the same thing with my sentence structure as well.
Sometimes it might not be the most comfortable thing to recognize faults in our writing, but without realizing them, accepting them, and tackling them, there’d be little room for us to grow as writers.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.