Saturday, January 22, 2011

Writing tics

Whether they want to or not, most people have nervous tics. It can be a hand brushing aside a perpetually errant curl, a scratch of the nose, a sniff between sentences. I have them; I stroke my chin when carefully considering an answer or scratch the back of my neck when nervous (this drives my wife absolutely bonkers!). Sometimes I squeeze my hands together when saying something that makes me uncomfortable.

It's human nature to have these little crutches that we've developed over the years.

Writers have them, too.

I'm not talking about aspects of my writing that are recognizable (I'm going to do a separate post on things I often find in my writing...ya know...like keycards). I'm talking about tics in my writing that are unnecessary and used as filler. They're things I don't realizing I'm doing until I take a good look at a manuscript.

My worst offenders are listed below.

In fact. I find this in a lot of stories I write. In fact, you'll see it in blog posts, too (see what I did there? Yeah, I'm rolling my eyes, too). I don't really even know what "in fact" means because I use it so casually, even in situations in which there's no actual "fact" to refer to. My book The Franchise uses the phrase only four times over its 73,000 words. A previous draft from last year included "in fact" 11 times. I can guarantee that earlier drafts used it much more often. An unrevised version of my book Seven uses "in fact" 20 times. A rough draft of Sheridan's Hammer invokes it 17 times. Sometimes, "in fact" is used in a character's dialogue. I'm more forgiving about those. I use the phrase often in description and it's a particularly weak way of writing something. I will have to be very careful in editing to remove this phrase.

Just. Ick. It's just one of those things. I employ this word much too often and I don't even realize it. I just scanned the most recent version of The Franchise; it's the draft that has the most polish. The word "just" appears more than 240 times! Again, it's probably more forgivable if a particular character uses it in dialogue. But if every character uses it...it's a writing tic. The word also appears too often in description. Sheridan's Hammer, which honestly I haven't given a second or third coat of paint to yet, uses "just" 260 times! That means there are a lot of pages where the word appears multiple times. Need to trim some fat from the manuscript? Just start with just! To put this in perspective, for the 365-page draft, I could eliminate almost an ENTIRE PAGE by taking out every instance of "just."

Almost. Not quite as prolific as the junk word "just," "almost" still appears too often. I'm using another book as a measuring stick here, but The Franchise includes "almost" 43 times. Sheridan's Hammer includes 28 uses of the word. I, Crimsonstreak has 31 instances of "almost."

There's. There's good writing and there's lazy writing. Sometimes, "there's" is the best you've got. But 98.5% of the time (yes, I've done a formal study and that's the scientific percentage), you can find a better alternative and a much more eloquent way of writing something. I, Crimsonstreak uses the phrase 99 times in its 85,000 words. Sheridan's Hammer uses it 30 times. The Franchise includes 38 uses. The higher percentage in Crimsonstreak is likely due to its first-person perspective; the writing in that book is a bit more conversational throughout the narrative. I know I can find several instances in which I can take the phrase out or use another one.

Usually. I'm pretty good at spotting this one. After going through some of my manuscripts, I don't use "usually" as often as I thought I would. It's not an infection like "just."

Pretty. I don't mean this like "the girl is pretty." I'm using this as a qualifier; "he's a pretty good guy" or "that's a pretty bad idea." I'm sure I've used it in its traditional sense in some of my writing, but it's usually used as an adverb. This one varies from work to work. I, Crimsonstreak is the worst offender; "pretty" appears in the novel approximately 70 times. Usage in my other books is about half that number.

What's the big deal about all this? Well, self-editing is difficult. I know what I've been trying to do and understand what I'm trying to say. When words are missing, my mind usually fills them in (I think I'll do a separate post this week on different approaches for proofreading via computer and hard copy). Since the words I mentioned are my own writing tics, sometimes they're hard for me to spot. That's why you need exceptionally good concentration when editing your own work. If you struggle too much with finding these things, you'd better track down an editor who can do more than simply read for content.

What about you? What writing tics infect your work?

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