Critique Technique, Part 29—Writers’ Tics

Writers’ tics—those sneaky, dastardly things that slip into our writing when we’re not looking and make it go CLANK! They’re insidious and terribly hard to recognize: our eyes glide right over them when we’re editing.

And it doesn’t matter how experienced we are, we’re still vulnerable to them.

What are they? Here’s a nowhere-near-complete list:

  • Incessantly using unnecessarily intrusive adverbs excessively.
  • Clichés we’ve read a million times before.
  • The words or phrases we really like to use over and over because they do a really great job of really capturing what we’re really trying to say.
  • Those, like, popular, y’know, empty words or phrases that are nothing but noise. I know: seriously?
  • Repeated word patterns:
    • Short, choppy sentences. Strings of them. One after the other. Like that. And this.
    •  Whenever you’re writing, beginning sentences with independent or dependent clauses.
  • Making repeated parenthetical comments, perhaps set off between commas, or other ways (within parentheses)—or between dashes—to call attention to them.
  • Putting words or phrases in quotation marks to “set them off” from the others, so readers know they’re “special.”
  • Using italics when a character’s being very emotional. Even when they’re not.
  • Using exclamation points! A lot!
  • Having one or more characters use the same gesture over and over.

The list goes on. And on.

The good news is that this is a case where being a critiquer can benefit you as well as the author you’re reading. When you’ve learned to spot these problems in other people’s writing, you’ll catch more of them in your own work.

Great! But what are you trying to do?

The good news is that this skill is a kind of working memory, in which your subconscious keeps track of things in a story or article, counting each time they show up, and when it detects them, it whispers to you, “Hey, that’s the third time she’s used ‘really’ as an adjective in the last four paragraphs. Looks like there’s a pattern setting up.” Once you’ve developed this turn of mind to catch these problems, they’ll start jumping out at you.

It’s like what happens after you’ve bought a new car, for example. Suddenly, you start seeing the same make and model on the street. You’ve become attuned to that thing—car or phrase—and now they seem to be everywhere. It’s not that they weren’t there before, you’re just more conscious of them now.

So how do you learn how to do this?

The good news is that there are at least a couple ways. First, if you know someone—a member of your writers’ group or a trusted reader, say—who already has the skill, watch them in action. Listen closely when they’re giving critique to another member of your group and then go back through that same piece, looking for what they found.

If they reviewed some of your own work, notice what they found, especially if they were kind enough to mark it for you, then go looking for the same problems in other things you’ve written.

Or, take a piece of writing that you’ve been told has some kind of writer’s tic in it, but not what the specific problem is, and try to find it yourself.

Like this one. I’ve planted a problem in it: a phrase that I’ve used repeatedly and in a very specific way. Can you find it?

The good news is that if you can find it, you won’t have to look in this footnote[1] to find out what it is. (By the way, did you notice that every bullet except the last one at the start of this article illustrated the problem it was describing?)

Like all the other problems and techniques in this series, detecting writers’ tics is about being aware of more than just the chain of words that pass before your eyes. It’s about seeing the work in larger parts, as the sum of those parts, and as something more than the sum. It’s about reading like a writer, not merely like a reader.

Once you’ve developed this skill, not only will you be able to help the writers you’re reviewing, you’ll be able to shock and dismay yourself when you discover how much you make these mistakes, too! But that’s OK because after you get over the shock and fix the problems, your work will be better, and that’s what we’re all striving for.

If you know any other techniques that writers and critiquers can use, please include them in the comments. Thanks!

Happy hunting and happy writing.


[1] It’s starting paragraphs with the phrase “The good news is that…”

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6 comments on “Critique Technique, Part 29—Writers’ Tics

  1. Codex: good catch! Finding that repetition is closely related to finding tics (and maybe ticks, too, but that’s an entirely different topic). Of course, it’s easier in an 800 word blog post than a many-thousand-word chapter, but this is where you start. Keep working on it.

  2. Liked your examples, thought I had found your inserted error, but was wrong. Unfortunately, that kind of thing slips under my radar, even when I’m reading another’s piece.

    • Now I’m curious: what did you find that you THOUGHT was the error? (And does being wrong about being wrong make you right? 😉 )

      Yeah, finding these things is tough–at least at first. Once you develop the skill, though, it becomes like riding a bicycle: natural.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • It seemed that, in the middle of the post when you were talking about looking for errors you used “and look for what they found” or something to that effect in three paragraphs. It’s not identical like your constructed beginnings were, which is why it’s funny that I missed those and picked up on something else. But I can never see beginnings in tandem unless I draw them out so that each paragraph beginning lines up directly under another. That’s the only way I can seem to see them. I need more training in this department.

  3. Do you think any of these rules can be broken? Surely it’s how you use the cliches and adverbs and empty phrases and what they show about the characters/narrators?

    • Thanks for your comment! Of course just about every writing “rule” can be broken if it’s broken with a purpose. The point of the piece was that we’re all are vulnerable to unintentionally doing little things that we know aren’t good writing but have become bad habits–or, in the case of a new writer, doesn’t know that they’re bad things to do. (I didn’t mention it in the original post but one of mine in my current manuscript was having my characters shake their heads–MUCH too often.) As critiquers, we bring a fresh set of eyes to a piece, which lets us pick out the oopses the author can’t see before he or she sends the piece out for publication.

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