April 25th, 2012

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Almost Madness

I enjoyed a nice day out yesterday. Some friends from out of town were in town, so we met up for lunch, and it was the perfect day to sit on a shady patio and eat burgers and drink root beer. We followed it up with a leisurely browse in a bookstore. It's potentially dangerous to browse a bookstore with someone who reviews books, but I went away with only one more than I'd planned to buy. I snagged the sole copy of the book I planned to buy off the shelving cart before they even got it to the shelf. I thought it was rather sad that they only had one copy of a new release on release day, when they had several copies of the previous book on the shelf -- and no copies of the rest of the series. That may have cost them a sale because I talked up the series to my friend, but they didn't have the first book for him to start with. When a new book comes out, have at least one copy of each book in the series on hand. Sometimes it seems like bookstores don't really want to sell you books, and this is an independent, so it's not some crazy top-down corporate decision. They also had no Connie Willis at all in their science fiction section, which is just wrong. But I did my civic duty and bought something at an independent. I don't often get to that side of town, so it worked out for me.

Now, though, it turns out I have more business-type stuff to do. It's not as fun as writing a book, but it is still essential, and it's a different kind of creativity.

Meanwhile, I'm about to ruin reading for you. Turn back now if you tend to mentally edit as you read because this will mess with your head.

Okay, now think about how often you see the word "almost" used. I realized recently that this had become one of my pet words. It first came to my attention in message board posts, where I guess I was using it as a weasel word -- softening an outright assertion. At Television Without Pity, one of the rules is that you can't state opinion as fact, so there tend to be a lot of disclaimers like "I think" or "it seems to me," but then it's easy to get into softening everything to avoid sounding strident, so instead of coming right out and saying something, like "this character is a jerk," I was saying something like "it's almost like this character is being a jerk." Once that jumped out at me, I started seeing it in what I was writing at the time. And then when I went back and proofread some older stuff, it was all over the place.

Not that you should never use "almost." It does fit at times when you really mean that something is nearly what you're saying it is, but not quite. But far too often, it seems to get used to say "I'm speaking metaphorically here" or to soften hyperbole. It's almost (ack!) like we're afraid readers won't understand what we're saying if we don't throw in something to indicate that it isn't literal. And that previous sentence would probably work perfectly well without the "almost," since it's what I really mean. The usual phrasing seems to be "it was almost as though" or "it was almost like."

And once I started noticing it in my own work, I started seeing it everywhere (and, no, not almost everywhere). It's in newspaper articles. It's all over novels, even novels by good writers who have been professionally edited. Sometimes, it really fits. Sometimes, not so much. It reminds me of something one of my journalism professors said in class: when you're tempted to use the word "very" in an article, use "damn" instead, and then the copy editor will take it out.

Of course, I suddenly can't think of more examples since I seem to have managed to edit that usage out of my vocabulary. I think that's made my writing a little more forceful without the weasel word. There's a boldness in saying what you mean to say, and when I catch myself writing "almost," I stop to think about whether it really is "almost" something or if it would still mean what I intend without the "almost."

Apologies if now you can't read without the word "almost" leaping off the page at you.