What’s Your Writing Tic?

We all have them – those dreaded tics, quirks and habits that creep into our work, worm their way onto the page and serve to drive us (and beta readers) crazy during the editing process. I confess that each new manuscript I seem to manage to create a new set of ‘tics’ – involuntary mannerisms that I seem oblivious to until I start revising or (even worse) until one of my beta readers pick up on them.

In my first book, my husband pointed out the number of times my main character shivered or drank a cup of tea (way too much…), while my agent highlighted that many of my secondary characters appeared to have similar sounding names to the nickname my main character had for her father’s Rolls Royce. Suddenly I found myself looking over my work and realizing that deep within I had developed some involuntary writing habits and quirks that I hadn’t even noticed. In my second manuscript I seemed to develop a weird tic for dropping prepositions – suddenly I kept forgetting ‘little words’ such as ‘at’ and ‘on’…and at the same time I developed a penchant for character names ending in ‘s’ which created a nightmare for editing. I guess at least poor old Ursula wasn’t shivering or drinking tea all the time.

For me, each new manuscript seems to create its own new set of unconscious writing tics: Whether it be eye rolling or darkness falling, characters whose names all begin with ‘M’, or the repetition of a word like ‘hesitantly’…each time I finish a new draft, I have a whole new set of peculiarities to watch out for in my writing. (I guess at least I should be thankful I catch most of them during the revision process!).  I spend at least one round of editing looking out for these ‘tics’  and trying to weed out whatever strange repetition my brain may have chosen to insert this time round.

What about you? Are you aware of any habits, mannerisms or ‘tics’ (as I like to call them) that tend to show up or infect your writing? How do you weed them out?

30 thoughts on “What’s Your Writing Tic?

  1. For me, it’s similes and metaphors….I love them, but they’re not always apt or even necessary. I once had three conflicting similes in the same paragraph!

    As for drinking tea, nodding, smiling, shrugging, and all those other overused and meaningless actions we give our characters during a scene?

    Sure, in my first draft, I have lots of those (except for the drinking tea part) but I go back and find each of the suckers and think carefully about what body language I can give the character that will give me an opportunity to play ping pong with setting details and will reveal more about that character and, perhaps, reveal the character’s feelings more accurately.

    Drinking tea? Absolutely not. My characters drink coffee!

    Just kidding, of course, but one way to avoid falling into the “Eating Trap” is to really think about putting your characters into interesting and meaningful settings. It’s often too easy and not that important to the story to put your characters around a kitchen table or in a restaurant, just because you want an easy way to add body language.

    Case in point: c.2 of my WIP, brother and sister talking, first choice the kitchen…NO, I tell myself. So now she’s gardening and he talks to her there.

    • Sheryl – My husband does wonder why I seems to be obsessed with tea as well as food. Sometimes I realize the three paragraphs of description I gave (including food) really isn’t necessary and I could have just cut to dialogue:) Changing the scene to the garden is a great idea:)

  2. Using brackets (a lot.)
    Really have a problem with the overuse of really.
    Commas, in all, the wrong, places.
    Extremely long sentences, where I have a thought but then that evolves into other thoughts and ideas that just keep on coming without a pause to stop and take a breath.

    • Funny you should mention brackets as I found in my last WIP a number of asides (in brackets) and wondered – where did these all come from – so it must be a new tic for me too!!

  3. I tend to overuse visceral reactions and I have a spreadsheet listing my most popular words. One of my first editing jobs is to pick these out and zap them when I see too many.

  4. It’s the same with me, Clare. The tic changes from book to book, and it’s my wife (my first reader) who always catches them. “Honey, in this one all your characters are shrugging.”

    I just think we make a word choice early in the draft, then the “boys in the basement” invite it down for a drink and then decide it’s a great joke to keep sending it back up at regular intervals.

  5. Clare, my first drafts contain more em dashes than I care to count. Always have to go back and convert them to commas or periods. Several characters whose names sound alike or start with the same letter are common in my first drafts. Thank goodness for find and replace.

    • Em dashes are one of my weaknesses too and why on earth does our brain not realize that having a Michael, Matthew, Mary and Maude all in one book is a bad idea…thank goodness for revision time!

    • I’m totally an emdasher. I try not to have more than one in a paragraph or page, but it’s a huge thing for me.

      And apparently my characters love the word “so.”

      Like you and Jim have pointed out, Clare, every book has its pecular tics. I do believe those demons in the basement have a perverse sense of humor.

  6. My tics… let me count the ways. I’d say I tend to pepper my dialogue with physical action, in an attempt to break things up while adding visual ambiance. For example – I’m a fan of Sorkinesque monologues – I’ll have my speaker take a break, shift in their chair, cast their eyes to the ceiling, or grin knowingly, then resume whatever they were waxing wise about. I guess you could say my tic is giving my characters tic that show up when they open their mouth.

    Like anything else, all things in moderation. Tics can be a good thing, they can define and enhance your voice, or they can overwhelm it.

    Excellent post today, Clare, happy/proud to be sharing Mondays with you.

  7. Oh, this is fun, I love it! I’ll be definitely making a post inspired by this article on my blog soon (with proper credit), since, as my tics would put it themselves: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And constant.

    Mainly they’re body language such as shrugging, sighing (not body language but close), smirking, giggling and the champion is frowning!

      • Oh, yes, I almost forgot various forms of glancing, looking, staring, peering and such. This calls for a tics dictionary: coming soon to a library next to you 🙂

  8. I seem to be in good company with the shrugging thing…and ellipses…those, too. The one thing I will not let my characters do? Quirk an eyebrow. 🙂

  9. My people “stare” a lot. One wag editor once wrote in the margin “I feel like I’m looking at a Walter Keane painting.” I’ve tried to stop this but it like in my writer genes or something.

  10. In my first book (still sitting on the shelf, waiting for the day …) my wife pointed out that almost all my secondary characters were “short and stocky,” and that many a “sigh of relief” was “heaved.” What’s wrong with just sighing, my much-smarter-than-me wife asked.

    • We all have our little gestures that creep in – rather than heaving, in one manuscript I had a lot of swallowing of words…which is hard to swallow after about the fifth time someone does it!

  11. After ellipses (elipsi? – and parenthetically, parenthetical), I find I’m finding a lot of duplicated duplicates, but I don’t mind minding the store, (or story, so to speak), in finding and cleaning house… (Oh yeah, using metaphors as mixed as jelly beans in a mason jar and similes as well also, too)



  12. The only way to weed them out is to gain distance on your work. Most often, you can’t see these repetitions unless you re-read it with fresh eyes.

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