Feb 16 2011

Tic talk

My critique group recently told me that I have several writing ticks, including the word ‘that.’ What are ticks? How do I get rid of them?Once Bitten, Dogville, U.S.

Tics. Writing tics, not ticks, the bloodsucking little bugs. Although writing tics can suck the life out of a manuscript.

Every writer has tics. I suppose some writers may have ticks, but that’s a subject for someone else’s blog. Writing tics are the repeated words or phrases or actions the writer subconsciously relies on and uses too frequently. The writer won’t notice her tics, but readers will.

The most frequent tic I have is I just repeat the word ‘just’ over and over again. I just don’t see it when I write, and it just comes out naturally. However, they just stand out like a sore thumb (cliché alert) to readers. I have a couple of tics I’m aware of, probably some I’m not aware of yet. Another one is ‘a couple of.’ I’ll use that phrase more than just a couple of times in my writing.

Once you’ve learned what your tics are, they’re pretty easy to spot.

Learning what they are may require the input of your trusted beta readers, a critique group, or a sharp-eyed editor. It’s difficult to notice the repetition when you’re writing, or when you’re reading it back to yourself and editing. Try reading your work out loud. Speaking the words and hearing them will often highlight repetitious and unnecessary words. If you think a word might be a tic, do a search for it in your manuscript and see how often it pops up. Then see if it’s necessary, if it can be deleted or if it should be replaced or rephrased so the repetition doesn’t create an echo.

Tics and repetitions aren’t always words or phrases, but can also be actions. The most commonly abused action I see, which is a tic for many writers, is for characters to sigh. Other action tics I see frequently include smiling, frowning, grinning, and other facial expressions. Some writers are conscious of the repetition, so they get creative or dive into a thesaurus to find synonyms for the repetitive word. Manuscripts become littered with smiles, grins, smirks, and beams. Add a few clichés to spice things up and you’ll get winning smiles, knowing winks, wry grins, and my least favorite of all time, furrowed brows. If you think facial expressions may be one of your tics, see this post on how to improve your writing by getting to the emotion that underlies the facial expression.

A character who looks at his watch or a clock every time the writer wants to alert the reader to the time is another common tic. If the time is important, state the time and readers will assume the POV character knows what time it is. The writer doesn’t have to show the character looking at a watch in order to tell the readers what time it is.

ORIGINAL: Fred grabbed his briefcase and flagged down a taxi. He looked at his watch: 7:45 p.m. He only had 15 minutes to make the meeting.

REVISE: Fred grabbed his briefcase and flagged down a taxi. He only had 15 minutes to make the 8 p.m. meeting.

In the revise, the reader knows what time it is without having Fred stop to look at his watch. It’s assumed Fred knows what time it is.

An exception to this is if looking at a watch or clock is in itself the crucial action. A woman on a blind date agrees to meet a man at the restaurant at 7 p.m. She’s concerned about being late and missing him, so she arrives 15 minutes early. She constantly checks her watch whiles she waits. This shows she’s nervous and she’s worried she might get stood up. At 6:50, she’s wondering if she should have come a few minutes late so as not to appear too eager. At 7:05, she’s worried that everyone in the restaurant is watching her and feeling sorry her, if they all know she’s been stood up. By 7:18, she’s angry. When he shows up at 7:35 and sees her checking her watch, he knows what kind of reception he’s in for.

In a scene like this, checking her watch is an integral action. But if you only need to let readers know the time, it’s not necessary for a character to check her watch or look at his digital alarm clock or see the clock on the office wall. Double check to make sure it’s even important to tell readers what time it is. If the reader knows it’s morning, or afternoon, or late night, it’s not always necessary to know the precise time unless it’s an important detail. You don’t have to tell readers the temperature and complete weather report in order for them to know it’s a sunny, warm day.

Facial expressions, checking the time, words like ‘just’ or ‘that,’ and phrases such as ‘a couple of’ are only a handful of examples of writer tics.

What are your tics? If you think that you don’t have any, you probably have a couple of them and just don’t know.

Oh, it’s 9:20 a.m. I need to get this posted.

12 Responses to “Tic talk”

  • Duane Sweep Says:

    I have two apparent tics. My mind wanders — often among three or four thoughts — and has a hard settling on any one thing (really, it happens). And there they are — dashes and those parenthetical phrases (really).

  • alexander Says:

    Before. “He looked at his watch before leaving the room.” It can almost invariably (like ‘that’, as you point out) be deleted.

    And then. See above.

    Somewhat. I actually find it somewhat annoying…

  • R. K. Alan Says:

    I have assembled a list of “kill words” I use during my next-to-last edit. The words are mushy verbs and downright annoying ‘tic’ words, as you have dubbed them. The word ‘that’ happens to be the third word on my list, now numbering close to fifty words, right behind ‘was’ and ‘were’. Some of my other favorite words to literally ‘kill’ from my manuscript are he saw realized, noticed, thought, felt, listened, look and looked.

    If you don’t have a kill list, start one and use the find function to zap them either by replacing them with stronger verbs/nouns or reworking the sentence to chase them off the page.

    Happy writing everyone… http://NewBookJournal.com

    • Robb Says:

      Good ones, R.K. While every writer may have different tics, there are some that are very common. The group you noted (saw, realized, heard, noticed, etc) will be the subject of an upcoming post here. They definitely need to go most of the time.

  • Ali Cooper Says:

    Hi Robb,
    I addressed this subject with the word ‘that’ in my novel, The Girl on the Swing. Many occurrences of it were edited IN by a very proper English former headmistress. I left most of them because it was the correct school-taught grammar for the narrator. It’s right for her voice and I’ve noticed I use it much less in other books/voices. It’s also a word which disappears to a quiet ‘t’ sound in speech and only becomes obvious when you write it down.

    I think we need to be aware of changing fashions – which is what many ticks are, edit if they appear too frequently but not get paranoid. Remember we’re writing for readers, not for fellow writers and editors. Also establish whether a particular tick is the voice pattern of the writer or of a character. If the former then the writer needs to stop their own voice creeping in, if the latter there’s a case to moderate use in the same way we’d damp down a dialect.

    • Robb Says:

      Ali, you’re absolutely right. If the word tics are intentionally part of the character’s voice in dialog, or the narrator’s voice in first-person narration, that’s a different beast. People have certain ways of speaking, whether dialect, individuality, or verbal tics, and all of those are fair game for use in creating a character’s voice (although even here, it can be overdone to the point of distraction – sometimes a little goes a long way to create the voice in the reader’s head).

      The words that frequently become writing tics (that, just, or anything else) are perfectly good words and have a proper use. I don’t recommend removing them all without thought. A writing tic is when a writer unconsciously overuses a particular word to the point where readers notice (not just other writers and editors) and it becomes a distraction to the story.

      Many of us have speech tics. We say ‘uh’ or ‘um’ or ‘ahh’ a lot when talking and don’t even know we’re saying it. But if we listen to a recording of ourselves giving a speech or having a conversation, we’ll hear it immediately, just as everyone in the audience heard it.

      A writing tic is like that. Highly overused, unintentional and not noticed by the writer, distracting to the reader.

      I’ve learned that ‘just’ is one of my tics, and I’ll go through the manuscript to search for each one. Then I make an individual decision for each usage: was it a writing tic that slipped in unnoticed and is unnecessary, or is it ‘just’ the right word?

  • Doug Says:

    Really good stuff, Robb. Shout it from the roof top, in fact! Write shorter — please.

  • Ruth E. Thaler-Carter Says:

    It can be a real challenge to get rid of our own writing tics, since we usually aren’t aware of making/having them. They don’t contribute to a distinctive writing voice; they’re more a constant hiccup that interferes with the flow of the text.

    I wouldn’t necessarily accept the writers’ group opinion on “that” being over-used (if anything, it often isn’t used enough), but I would ask them what other words or phrases strike them as overused.

    One way to tackle the problem would be to use “search and replace” to find all the instances where that word or phrase appears. Look at each one individually to see if the word/phrase works or should be deleted or replaced with something else.

    It also helps to put the work aside and revisit it after some time away from it; that provides some distance and objectivity, which often makes catching our own errors, tics and other problems easier.