Afflicted with tics? Most of us are.
Every writer has “tics”—words, expressions, sentence structures that we overuse without realizing it. We tend not to see them when we edit. If we notice them at all, we may think these tics are part of our style. But readers will notice them, find them annoying, and be put off by them.
I’m not talking about the words that everyone tends to overuse: words like even, just, still, yet, very. Those words can be tics, but most of us who have been writing any length of time avoid them. The dangerous tics are those that are our own peculiar pests. They are our personal favorites. They may occur throughout all our work, or they may be prevalent in one particular manuscript.
For example, I was editing for at least the third time a YA manuscript I had completed some time previously and thought almost ready to send to my agent. I happened to notice that my protagonist was constantly being surprised by things. On almost every page I had written something like, “To her surprise, she saw . . .” or “. . . she said in surprise,” or, “Surprised, she stepped back.” The poor girl was in a constant state of startlement! Once I saw what I was doing, I rewrote those sentences, omitting the surprise, and found the meaning unchanged and the writing strengthened.
That tic was peculiar to that manuscript. I have others that creep into all my work if I’m not on guard. I overuse “realize” and “learn,” for example. I don’t need to say that my heroine “realized that someone was standing in the shadows.” It is stronger to say simply, “Someone was standing in the shadows,” or “She saw someone in the shadows.” When we are in the viewpoint character’s mind, we recognize a realization without having it pointed out.
Particular sentence structures can also be tics. We all try to avoid long series of simple declarative sentences by varying our sentence structure. But sometimes we vary it too often in the same way, such as beginning sentence after sentence with a participial phrase: “Standing on a chair, he unscrewed the light bulb. Holding the burnt out bulb in his hand, he inserted the new one. Teetering on the edge of the chair, he was in danger of falling. Dropping the burnt bulb, he caught himself in time. Relieved, he stepped off the chair and gathered the broken glass.”
Also, stylistic tricks that are effective if used sparingly lose their effectiveness if overused. An example of a stylistic trick is that of joining two clauses or phrases together without a conjunction: “She tasted blood, felt a pain in her lip.” This is an effective device that only becomes a “tic” if it is overused.
How do we eliminate tics? First, we have to identify them. It helps to read our work aloud; the tics sometimes jump out at us when we do. It also helps to read our work to other writers or have writer friends go over it for us. Others will spot tics that we’ve overlooked. Setting work aside after completing it and waiting several days or weeks before editing it also allows us to look at it more objectively.
We may never eliminate all our tics, but we can prevent an infestation.
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