Critique Technique, Part 29 — Writers’ Tics

Woman writing notes
Image courtesy of Graur Codrin /

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 really 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 or ALL CAPITALS 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, facial expression, or other behavior 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?

Finding Writer’s Tics

The good news is that finding writer’s tics uses a kind of working memory. Your subconscious keeps track of things in a story or article, counting each time they show up, and when it detects something, it whispers, “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 gotten a new car. 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—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 and were kind enough to mark those tics for you, go looking for the same problems in your other work.

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 also 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 passes 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.

Questions for You

Let’s go back through that list of potential tics and create some questions you can ask yourself as you review a work.

  • Does he use adverbs excessively?
  • Does she use clichéd descriptions?
  • Are there certain words or phrases that keep showing up in his work?
  • Does she use empty words that add nothing to the text? (Note that these can be acceptable in dialogue, at least for a while, to help demonstrate a character’s personality.)
  • Does he repeat sentence structures, like short or long sentences, or repeatedly beginning sentences with dependent or independent clauses?
  • Does she overuse commas, parentheses, em-dashes, italics, all capitals, or exclamation points?
  • Do his characters have only a limited repertoire of gestures, facial expressions, etc.?

If the author does any of these things, or you notice any other kind of unintentional repetition, be sure to point it out to them and suggest what they can do to fix it.

What other kinds of writer’s tics have you noticed in work you’ve reviewed? If you know any other techniques that writers and critiquers can use, please include them in the comments box below.

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

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