writing tics

3 Things I Love Lucy Can Teach You About Writing Tics

3 things to help you overcome your writing ticsQuick, what annoying trait do writers and I Love Lucy share?

In the classic episode “In Palm Springs,” Lucy and her gang drive each other up the wall with their irritating habits: Ricky’s finger tapping, Lucy’s coffee stirring, Ethel’s noisy eating, and Fred’s key jingling.

Writers aren’t much different. We tap, stir, slurp, and jingle our way through our stories, gleefully unaware that we’re driving readers crazy with our personal writing tics.

The very fact that we’re unaware of these tics means they can be insidiously difficult to find, much less overcome. Sometimes tics take the seemingly innocent form of overused words and pet phrases. Check out the following!

1. Commonly Overused Words

Some words are overused so often they find their way onto the Wanted: Dead or Alive list of practically every author, agent, and editor (not to mention reader).

Usually, these are words that are flabby, boring, or just plain unnecessary (actually, “just plain” has a pretty good price on its head).

Run a search for words such as:

  • Very
  • Just
  • That
  • Quite
  • Nice
  • Some
  • Seemed
  • Almost
  • Such

Whenever you find one, gun it down. Nine times out of ten, you’ll realize the word isn’t needed to convey meaning or flavor. (For a more in-depth list of overused words, complete with example sentences, visit Tamera Lynn Kraft’s blog Word Sharpeners).

2. Personally Overused Words

In addition to generic tics, authors have their own cache of pet words and phrases, most of which are perfectly fine when used once or twice, but which become overbearing, distracting, and nauseating when they crop up in every chapter.

Your personal tics are as unique as the rest of your writing, and, usually, you’re completely blind to them. For example, “throat,” “quirk,” “jaw,” and “muscles” are words I’ve learned to guard against in my own writing—words one of my beta readers refers to as “Weiland Specials.”

This blindness is the very thing that makes these tics so dangerous. Ultimately, we’re at the mercy of our critique partners, beta readers, and editors to help us identify which words and phrases we’re overusing. Nothing is more valuable to a writer than a pair of objective eyes.

We can get a head start on these tics by utilizing tools such as Wordcounter—which allows you to search for overused words and also overused phrases of a specific length—or the Word Frequency feature in Scrivener, a word processor designed specifically for writers.

3. Dialogue and Gestures

Some of the most nefarious felons in the underworld of writing tics are those that appear in dialogue and descriptions of a character’s gestures. As with all tics, overused dialogue phrases (such as you know, look here, and now then) and overused gestures (such as shoulder shrugging, eyebrow raising, and arm crossing) are often unintentional on the writer’s part.

But sometimes we incur deliberate guilt in an attempt to characterize through consistent personality quirks. This is acceptable up to a point, but be careful you’re not overdoing your protagonist’s habit of shoving his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Mentioning this once or twice will be more than enough to get the point across.

Because writing tics continue to evolve throughout a writer’s life, none of us will probably ever completely master them. But it’s important to be vigilant, lest our readers get any bright ideas from that I Love Lucy episode and come after us with a baseball bat!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are some of your more prevalent writing tics? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I love that episode on ” I love Lucy!” 😀
    Great post, Katie! A wonderful Sunday to you dear!

  2. Good post. Great minds think alike, they say. I wrote a similar post the other day about eliminating unnecessary words or those we use too often. 🙂 I look forward to your next.

  3. Well, let me just say that I this is just a great read because I just happen to have a few of those tics. No others come to mind just now, though 😛

    Thanks for this!

  4. I have to watch the “grinning” and the “look” or “watch”

    Cool about Writer Unboxed – I love them and am a member of the facebook group page – y’all come join!

  5. Well and sighing are my big issues. I’ve had characters sigh so much they would have passed out from oxygen deprivation.

    Whatever my other issues are, they’ll have to wait ’til I reach the editing point. I know they’re lurking in there…

  6. Well and sighing are my big issues. I’ve had characters sigh so much they would have passed out from oxygen deprivation.

    Whatever my other issues are, they’ll have to wait ’til I reach the editing point. I know they’re lurking in there…

  7. “just” “just” “just”

    Apparently all my character “just” smile or “just” shrug or “just” laugh uproariously at weird things. Just that.

  8. @Grace: Yep, I Love Lucy is a lot of fun, isn’t it?

    @Heather: I’ll have to go check it out.

    @Deb: It’s a good thing misery loves company, because these tics are endemic to all authors.

    @Kathryn: Generic actions, such as looked, can be pitfalls for me too.

    @Miss Cole: That’s hilarious. I’ve gone through spurts where sighing is one of my favorite words too.

    @Jenny: Just was one if the first words I had an editor get onto me about. I’ve fortunately become much more aware of it over the years.

  9. In the words of Dr. Gregory House, “Everybody sighs” . . . or at least they do in my writing, lol.

    And shrugs. I have the most apathetic characters in the world.

    Those are my writing tics.

    Great post!

  10. Thanks for a great post and links.
    I knew I was guilty of overusing ‘just’ and really, but I’ve just done proofs of my MS and discovered the curse of however, ‘quotations’ and (sigh) and/or slash. The fact that it’s a non fiction book doesn’t excuse me…

  11. @Brenda: It is interesting to look at the tics we favor and consider how they reflect upon our characters’ attitudes in general.

    @Kate: Tics are universal to writers, no matter their genre, so at least you know you’re in good company!

  12. Busted! LOL
    Mine are “that” and “as well as” – drives me crazy when I find them in my writing. “That” is heavy, overused and makes the text lag.
    I love your practical tips, advice as well as (LOL couldn’t resist) how you call upon writers to take stock on a regular basis.
    Great post thank you for investing your time!

  13. Good additions. Filler words, such as “that,” are often invisible to both authors and their readers, but they bloat the text and leave it flabby and weak.

  14. Yeah, they sure are- I’ve seen all seasons! They sure do keep you laughing!

    I’m hoping to get my hands on your books sometime soon, I hear tell they are wonderful! I saw the first bit of a chapter a little while back and loved the beginning, I can’t wait to sometime get my hands on the real copies. Are you working on any more?

  15. Thanks for this post. I see myself in your mirror.

  16. @Grace: Thanks! I hope you enjoy the book when you read it. My next book, a fantasy, is scheduled for release next year, and I just finished the first draft of a historical about WWI. You can read more about them, and my other projects, on my Currently Writing page.

    @Gullible: Oh, so that’s who that reflection was! 😉

  17. You are so welcome! I would love to read them- they sound great! And that is so cool about your newest addition,(once they come out) I went to the link you gave me and loved every bit of what I read! They sound so very Interesting! Keep up the good work, Katie!! =) When you were younger, how old were you when you wanted to be a writer?

  18. I think I was around twelve when I started writing. But it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be “a writer,” as I just wanted to write down the stories in my head so I wouldn’t forget them. Then, of course, I fell in love with the writing itself – and the rest is history!

  19. Well how neat! I understand your want to write them down- I can think up a story so easily, but never have went far enough to writing them down or turning them into a book. I love to write though. Well I do know that you have a great career of writing in the future- that is definite! Just keep it up!

  20. You’re very sweet. 🙂 Just start writing down those stories! Who knows where it will lead you?

  21. Well thank you, Katie! I try to be! 🙂 Yeah I have thought about it lots of times and have even gone as far as writing one… Because I’d love to think I write one book in my life. But I don’t think I would go much farther than that or not. Though writing is fun, I’m not sure if I’d want to do it most of my life. Just a one book would be nice because like I have told many friends I want to do everything at least once… See where I’m going?

  22. I have several of those writing tics you mentioned… thank god for second drafts.

    And now I want to watch I Love Lucy, thanks.

  23. @Grace: Writing is one of those things that takes a lot of dedication and passion to pull off as a lifelong pursuit. I often tell people that if they don’t love it so much that they can’t *not* do it, they’re probably better off not writing. But I bet if you gave it a concerted try, you’d fall in love with it.

    @Austin: Oh dear, have I created a new procrastination technique for my readers? Watching I Love Lucy as writing homework? 😉

  24. Yes so you see, though I really pike to write I wouldn’t want to make a career of it. I already have planned what I want to do in my life; and being an everyday writer isn’t exactly my ideal. It would just be a process of writing a book or two. Farther than that truly would take a lot of consideration. I’ve been told many times that I would make a great writer, and already I love to write, I’m just not certain it’s part of my future. Who knows. All of life is in Gods hands and his will is mine. But I just don’t think it’s my calling to actually be a writer. I’m more of the stay at home lady that just wants to get married, be mother, etc. Of course one can still be all that and a writer to, I’m just saying I don’t think I’d go that far. See?

  25. Yes, indeed, I can certainly understand and respect that. But writing doesn’t have to be a career. In fact, I would suggest that if the main reason anyone is pursuing writing is because they want to make a career of it, their priorities are probably misaligned. Writing (particularly fiction), as a career, is great, but writing needs to be more about the journey than the destination if we’re really to enjoy it and share that enjoyment with our readers.

  26. Well I am very glad you do, Author Katie! 😉 I was trying to figure out a way to describe it to you. I’ve ventured on the subject of me wanting to do everything at least once, and even of just writing a book or something of the sort, but I don’t think anyone understands me. 😛 I alway have had loads of wild and unusual ideas. But your right about it nit just having to be a career because I’ve known authors to only write one book. But in my way of thinking it is just the want of having a book that was written by me. So I could help those around. Etc.

  27. No one says an author has to write more than one book. Many great authors wrote one classic and that was it. Maybe you’ll be one of them!

  28. True enough, and thanks! It would be rather run to be one of them! We shall just have to see… And sometime soon I shall think about writing down my stories… And maybe send you a short one. 🙂

  29. It used to be adverbs for me…then I got conscious of those and hardly ever use them. Then it was “just” and I’m now conscious of EVERY “just” I use; they are thinning out. BUT my new pet word is “but” and I have to get creative to reorder sentences so I don’t pepper the pages with but but but but. 🙂

  30. Well, the good news is that you’re onto your tics. If you’re aware of what they are, more than half the battle is won.

  31. If I may join this very long comment thread … I’ve been working on excising most of the “that”s (except those which stand in for “which”), “some” and other small adverbs, and “I mean” in dialogue. Direct answers (“yes,” “no,” and “maybe”) are often deleted if it’s clear what the character’s answer to the question is.

    I also have a tic with phrases like “he shrugged,” “crossed his arms,” “shook his head,” “frowned,” and “look.” I began to replace “look” with “regard” or “watch,” but they’ve become tics, too. I think maybe if I used them interchangeably …

    ~ VT

  32. Good list. I admit I hadn’t considered that “yes” and “no” are often unnecessary thanks to the context. Another unnecessary dialogue filler to be on the watch for is when one character asks another to repeat something. If a character has to say, “What do you mean?”, the first line of dialogue probably was too unclear to print in the first place.

  33. Interesting post dear!

  34. Thanks for stopping by!

  35. Raising an eyebrow as a reaction in conversation is a huge tic for me. Yikes. I think one of the best ways to cure it would be to really go observe people and real conversations and write down all the various ways they react. I need to expand my vocabulary so that I don’t fall back on my tics out of habit or lack of something else to write. Thanks for this post!

  36. One of the handy features of “casting” your characters is that it gives you a visual reference for gestures and expressions, particularly if you choose the face of an actor or friend that you’re very familiar with.

  37. For some reason I can’t make myself stop using the word though, even though it’s completely useless. See, I just used it.

    When I’m done with writing I let Word find a list of words I use too much. That’s about the only way I can get rid of them.

  38. I makes lists of overused words and run Find searches through my docs too. It’s one of my absolute, hate-it-to-pieces, least favorite parts of the writing process. But it’s *so* necessary.

  39. If you need help finding your tics, sites like Wordle and Tagexdo can find the most commonly used words–it even filters out words like ‘a’, ‘and’, ‘the.’

  40. I love Wordle, but I hadn’t heard of Tagexdo. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  41. Excellent piece. I’d just blogged on this very same topic recently. Speaking of things I’ve just done, the word ‘just’ is one of my writing tics, as it just shows up in my writing and I just don’t notice it.

  42. “Just” was one of the very first tics I ever got slammed for by an editor. Needless to say I’m much more aware of it now!

  43. A great reminder and great post. I already delete the “verys” and “justs” from my writing as I type. But I’m sure there are many other words I personally overuse that I’m not aware of. I’m now using Liquid Story Binder to organize my writing, and it has a feature that can tell you what words you’re overusing. I’ll have to use that–and soon!

  44. Liquid Story Binder – sounds like an interesting program. I’ll have to see if I can find it somewhere.

  45. I don’t write fiction “yet” but reading your blog makes me feel like I am missing out big time! So much you say applies to writing in general and I love to visit and see what topics you have exposed and challenged us with. Thanks for your willingness to share your passion!

  46. Believe me, it’s my pleasure! I’m thrilled that even non-fiction authors are able to glean something from the site – but you really ought to jump into the fiction pool. The water’s great! 😀

  47. I started editing my 2nd WIP yesterday. Although I had a pretty good idea of what was needed, this blog sharpened my aims tremendously.
    The more I learn, the more exciting it gets.

    Thanks, Katie.

  48. alexmcgilvery says

    I regularly use search and replace to fix the commonly repeated words. With track changes on, replace the word with itself. Voila, every use is marked and as a side benefit, I now know I use ‘that’ 1400 time in a 100k novel.

    Your third point about gesture is important, but there is another piece to this. Those two word beats don’t tell us anything about the character or what is going on. I call them empty beats. An occasional shrug is not bad, if it is expanded to make that particular shrug mean something different than the last one. Nodding and smiling are other offenders.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Smart. Since I use Scrivener, which doesn’t feature Track Changes, I will commonly run a search/replace that replaces suspect words with the same words all in caps. It makes me focus on each one in turn.

  49. John Wilson says

    Main prog is an owl. He blinks a lot, swivels, shuffles, bounces, ruffles, and stretches. Sticks his beak out. Examines his talons. Craps occasionally. Then there are eight other owls. Picture the scene. One tree. Nine owls. Go.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, but that’s not that different than a scene with nine humans, right? Personality is what makes our universal tics unique. 😉

  50. I have a whole list of filter words I chop out after my final rewrite. It’s the last stage I do in my revision process. Filter words are so annoying, but convenient when writing the first draft.

Trackbacks

  1. […] bells in their heads. If a word shows up that frequently, then surely you must be overusing it. Readers will notice its repetition and stumble over it as it clutters your […]

  2. […] bells in their heads. If a word shows up that frequently, then surely you must be overusing it. Readers will notice its repetition and stumble over it as it clutters your […]

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