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) 
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