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.