What I Love Lucy Can Teach You About Writing Tics

Quick, 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. Technically, a “writing tic” is any repeated mistake, so the term encompasses everything from major plot problems to grammar boo-boos. The only remedy for these types of tics is applied study of the craft, a good editor, and lots of practice. However, some of these villains aren’t blatant mistakes. Sometimes tics take the seemingly innocent form of overused words and pet phrases.

Commonly Overused Words

Some words are overused so often that 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 (in fact, “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, and such. Whenever you find one, gun it down. Nine times out of ten, you’ll realize the word isn’t even 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).

Personally Overused Words

In addition to generic tics, each author has his own cache of pet words and phrases, most of which are perfectly fine when used once or twice, but which become overbearing, distracting, and flat-out nauseating when they crop up in every chapter. Each author’s personal tics are as unique as the rest of his writing, and, usually, he’s 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 beta reader refers to as “Weiland Specials.”

This blindness is the very thing that makes these tics so dangerous. Ultimately, we’re completely 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. But we can also get a head start on these tics by utilizing tools such as Wordcounter—which allows you to search for both overused words and overused phrases of a specific length—or the Smart Edit scanning feature in PageFour, a word processor designed specifically for writers.

Dialogue and Gestures

Some of the most nefarious felons in the underworld of writing tics are those that appear in our dialogue and our 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 to readers.

Because writing tics continue to evolve throughout a writer’s life, we’ll probably never 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!

Tell me your opinion: What are some of your more prevalent writing tics?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Jim Arnold says:

    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.

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