A Freelance Editor Talks About Authors’ “Habits” & Predictable Writing

By Jordan Dane

I had the pleasure of working with Elyse Dinh-McCrillis (The Edit Ninja) on my short story anthology – Sex, Death and Moist Towelettes – and hope to send her more full-length novels. She came recommended from another thriller author – Brett Battles – so I owe him a beer. She is guest posting her thoughts on the patterns of authors. Enjoy!

This is Elyse laughing at my anthology…I’m sure.

Patterns in Writing
When Jordan approached me about a guest post, I decided to write about the patterns I’ve noticed in my clients’—and other authors’—work. These aren’t errors, but habitual things writers do that make their writing predictable. Most of my clients are surprised when I point them out, so it’s become clear these things happen unconsciously.

I’m not talking about a signature. One of Elmore Leonard’s signatures, for example, is his hip dialogue, with specific rhythms you can almost hear while reading. But the dialogue isn’t repetitive. I’d like to discuss things that show up repeatedly, and could potentially distract readers.

Here are some of the most common patterns I’ve seen, in everything from manuscripts by first-time authors, to finished novels by Pulitzer-nominated writers.

Reusing the same atypical word.

I was a beta reader for a friend and noticed he described many things in his novel as “dank”—basement, room, weather, smell, even mood. I suggested he substitute a few synonyms. He did a search and said, “I found only thirteen mentions in the whole ms. That’s not a lot!” I asked, “But how close were they together?” He admitted that in one instance, the word showed up twice in three pages. Astute readers would notice that.

A recent thriller by a New York Times bestselling author had an overabundance of “murmured” as a dialogue tag. After a while, I thought, “Is everyone in a seance?”

We all have words we overuse. One of mine is “just,” e.g., “I just saw that recently, and thought it was just a mole.” Be aware of your favorite words, do a search for them after you’re done writing, and replace if necessary.

Using the same descriptions and mannerisms for different characters.

In this one book I read, whenever the women were nervous, they bit their lower lips, and when the men experienced stress, they ran their hands through their hair. I started counting the number of times this happened, and could see it coming if characters started feeling stressed or anxious. I got so caught up in the counting, I lost track of what was going on in the plot.

A related pattern would be using the same descriptions as shortcuts for different types of characters. I edited an ms in which every good guy had chiseled features, every tough guy had a crew cut, and every bad guy had horrible teeth. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if a good guy had a facial scar, a tough guy wore glasses, and a bad guy looked like George Clooney? Not falling back on easy clichés to denote stereotypes increases the chances of fully dimensional characters being born.

Repeating the same sentence structure.

Many writers fall into a rhythm as they write, which sometimes results in the same kind of sentence over and over: always starting or ending with a participial phrase, starting or ending a line of dialogue with a direct address, too much passive voice, multiple run-ons in the same paragraph, three short sentences in a row. (“He looks. He listens. He waits.”) All those stylistic choices are fine, but when one occurs too often, the writing becomes routine. Mix up the kinds and lengths of sentences, use them in different order, keep readers on their toes.

Different characters speaking the same way.

Sometimes writers get tied to one kind of speech pattern. I recently read a book by a well-known author in which many characters would eliminate the first words in questions: “That him?” “Help you?” “Hell you talking about?” It’s fine if one character talks like that, but I think a little old lady might say, “Is that him?”

Being attached to a favorite letter, name, number, or color.

In a novel I edited, there were characters named Linda, Lita, Lynn, Lila, Laura, Leslie, Lori (they were not related). I have a good guess as to what letter might be on the author’s monogrammed towels. In another ms, several of the names rhymed: Boris, Norris, Morris, Doris, Dolores. The thriller read like poetry.

Make a character list to see if too many names contain the same letters, or if some of your minor characters are named the same. I worked on a book in which a couple of “under fives” (a movie term for characters with under five lines) were named John, because they were less important to the author and he failed to see he’d used the same name for both.

I read a thriller by an author whose favorite color was seemingly red, because two in three characters were redheads, and different characters drove red cars, had on red dresses, and owned houses with red doors. Another time, an author was stuck on the number 9. There was a countdown to a momentous event, and every chapter had a time designation that ended in 9—3:19, 2:29, 6:39, 12:49, etc. These patterns weren’t part of a theme, merely coincidences that became distracting. Sometimes people wear beige, and things happen at 5:42.

Overuse of italics for emphasis.

This one book I read averaged one italicized sentence for every two paragraphs. So many things were important. The italics soon became mundane, which defeated their purpose.

There are other patterns I can discuss, but I may have already overstayed my welcome. Thank you to Jordan for asking me to be here, and all of you for indulging me.

What patterns have you noticed in your reading…or your writing?

Elyse’s Website: TheEditNinja.com

Twitter: @EditNinja (official), @popculturenerd (where Elyse is more active) 

21 thoughts on “A Freelance Editor Talks About Authors’ “Habits” & Predictable Writing

  1. Ian Fleming used the word “jackknifed” twice in Dr. No. Although spaced well apart, the second appearance made me pause–not something you want a reader to do. It didn’t hurt his career, but a different word would have made Dr. No a better book.

  2. Exactly, Mike. Anything in the story that makes a reader pause has potential to make him/her stop reading altogether.

  3. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Elyse & hope to again soon. She’s meticulous & thorough without being overbearing. I also loved her comments on how to enhance elements of my stories. I learned from her & she’s made me rethink my own patterns.

    Thanks for being my guest at TKZ, Elyse.

  4. Great points, Elyse. It was a real eye opener for me the first time I worked with an editor and saw my own patterns pointed out. It has really helped me self-edit my work knowing what to look for when revising.
    And yes, just is one of my favorite manuscript words, too. Thanks for the advice.

  5. A recent thriller by a New York Times bestselling author had an overabundance of “murmured” as a dialogue tag. After a while, I thought, “Is everyone in a seance?” This has had me chuckling for most of the morning. Thank you : )

    You mentioned Ian Fleming. If you were ever tempted to fry your brain try reading his predecessor, Peter Cheyney. You’ll end up vacant eyed and drooling : )

  6. Thanks for the examples. At least I know I’m not alone in having an overabundance of patterns that I need to edit out of my work.

    LOL at the seance line. 😎

  7. Patterns in my writing? Impossible! Oh, wait, I mean, very possible.

    Elyse is awesome, everyone. I use her on all of my books, and, as I’m fond of saying, she keeps me from looking stupid.

  8. Elyse, thanks for stopping by TKZ and sharing such sound advice. Patterns like you describe are issues that any writer should be aware of no matter what level of skill he or she has achieved. I have a list of my favorite words and phrases that I search for during the editing process. I’m always amazed at what I find.

  9. Having an external source to ensure the appearance of non-stupidity is a key factor in my writing career. Without my own editor I fear I would sound like a 6 year old telling about a violent dream with a limited vocabulary.

    She helped me see that I had my characters raising their eyebrows so often that they all started to look like surprised Phyllis Dillers everytime a conversation got going.

    Thanks for joining TKZ Elyse, you and those in your trade are what makes us look good.

  10. Jordan–Thank you for such kind words. It was a pleasure working with you. I read TKZ so am chuffed I get to be a guest blogger today. The caption you wrote for my picture cracked me up!

    David–It’s hard to see our own patterns so we need someone to point them out. I have a blog and often ask my husband to look over my posts, just in case (there’s the “just”!).

    Mike K–MikeH actually mentioned Fleming. Though I love the Bond movies and have seen all of them, I’ve shamefully never read the books. Next time I’m in the mood to be vacant-eyed and drooling, though, I know what to do! Thanks!

    BK–Oh, goodness, no, you’re DEFINITELY not alone!

    Brett–Wait a minute, you didn’t run that comment by me first! Seriously, I am lucky I get to work on your books. And you’re not stupid at all, but if you want to give me credit, I’ll take it. Can I put “responsible for making Brett Battles not look stupid since 2011” on my business card?

    Joe–Yes, I see it in every skill level, and in finished books sitting atop bestseller lists. It makes me wonder, “Why didn’t anyone catch those things during the editing process?”

    Basil–Thanks so much for saying that. I’ve often heard self-published writers say they don’t need an editor because they’re very good at self-editing and that always makes me cringe. But if I tell them why an editor is necessary, it sounds like I’m drumming up business for myself or inflating the importance of what I do. I’m just glad there are writers like you and the others here who get it.

  11. Naomi–There’s always hope. Keep your mind open to learning new things with each book and have patience with yourself. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Enjoy the journey each day & celebrate every victory, no matter how small.

  12. What a great list! Thanks. I have so many habits, mostly crutch words. I’ve created a long list of slash and burn words. I don’t worry about it in draft one, but after that? Bye-bye.

  13. Excellent list! I’m a frequent offender for multiple blonde characters, and names starting with the same letter or sounding similar (Lonnie and Lenny, anyone?). Once I become aware of a pattern, I do a global search to locate and destroy them. But I’m constantly discovering new ones!

  14. Basil – that is hilarious. I had one beta reader comment that one of my characters seemed to be in a constant state of flushed/blushed and did the poor guy have a fever?



  15. Thanks for being TKZ’s guest today, Elyse. Great post! Besides all the characters in my head, now I hear your voice too. I consider that a good thing.

  16. Naomi–I’ve read your writing so I KNOW you’re being ridiculous!

    Julie–Yes, get your story down in the first draft and then worry about the fine-tuning later. That’s hard for me to do when I’m writing sometimes because the editing portion of my brain kicks in and wants to fix every sentence. I have to force myself to keep writing or else I’d be revising the same sentence for an hour!

    Kathryn–I think multiple blonde characters would be plausible because there are more of them in the world, whereas redheads are somewhat unusual, at least in the States. When I read about several redheads (who aren’t related) gathered at a party, I think, “Is this a redhead convention?”

    Terri–That’s funny!

    Jordan–Thank YOU. This has been a great place to hang out. And I hope my voice sounds sexy and husky in your head instead of shrill or drill sergeant-like.

  17. Thanks Elyse -chiming in from Down Under. I am guilty of all these. After my husband read my first novel he asked why my main character, Ursula, was always cold and why she seemed to drink an inordinate amount of tea and eat so many cakes…I said it was just me projecting myself onto the page but I did clear up those repetitions!

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