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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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. 😉

  4. M.L. Bull says:

    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.

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