Wednesday, April 28

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, April 28, 2010 22 comments
Copy-editing for my job has been eye opening this week. Dense and difficult ideas are par for the course in the lit-crit essays that cross my desk, but my current headache is an author's style tying me in knots. He's enamored of adding "softening phrases" and asides to nearly every sentence. I'm ready to tear my hair out after reading line upon line like this: "What he means here, then, is blah-bitty blah, that is, yada yada yada." This author has what I'd call verbal tics he probably thinks make his style sound conversational. For me as a reader, it's just incredibly annoying. His style makes the good ideas murkier than they need to be.

Grappling with this essay got me thinking: many of us may also suffer from the verbal tic malady. We use favorite stylistic devices or techniques over and over that sound good to us, but grate on a reader. My question is, how do you identify this problem in your own work? How do you learn to control it?

Has your work ever suffered from verbal tics? How did you know? Please share your best tips for "tic checking."


  1. Yes yes yes! If I suspect I'm overusing a word, I do a 'find' in Word to see how many times I've used it, then scan quickly through the 'found' instances to see if I am indeed using it where it doesn't need to be. You could also do a Wordle type thingy.

  2. Isn't this why we have critique groups? They've saved me from myself many a time!

  3. I count on Valerie Geary to save me from such things - and she's great at it!! :-)

  4. I used to use those softening phrases a lot too. When I went through edits for my book, I watched them all get mercilessly cut. Now, I can't stand to read them. I'm sure you're helping your author realize how annoying they are.

  5. I do this all the time! And I miss it all the time when I go back and read through it, thank goodness for good critique partners. But stopping it myself, I'm working on it.

    How did your chapter 11 turn out ;)?

  6. I think we are all guilty of overusing little tics in our writing.

    I'm more guilty of it in casual writing (emails, blog posts and comments) than writing my novels. But, this is indeed why we have critique partners.

    A tic I hate seeing is incorrect or over use of the semi colon. As with most things in life, less is often more.

    Another wonderful post, Laurel.

  7. Favorite words get me in hot water. When I'm editing, I'll reach for my Synonym Finder or go to the online Thesaurus. I also frequent blogs that give lists of alternative words and phrases.

    Thanks for the post.

  8. I'm guilty of this *blushes*, I suppose it happens to all of us at the beginning, or maybe always, but each time I learn something I try and change it to match what the ultimate goal is... making my novel a better one!

  9. Lola: great tips. I'd love to know more about using Wordle. Guess I could google it.

    Janet: I'd love to spare my beloved "critters" from annoying prose where possible.

    Shannon: That extra set of eyes sure does help.

    Amy: I know I use them too much too, as a way of communicating my MC's lack of self confidence. They're ok in moderation, I guess. (ACK There's one! "I guess" Oy vey.)

    The author won't get to see page proofs, so I have to be careful to not gut his style entirely. Some of the dratted asides will have to stay. :-(

  10. Crystal: Yeah, me too. I'd like to better at fixing these problems myself.

    I had an awesome breakthrough day on chap 11 yesterday!! Wrote seven pages! Just one last mini-scene to go.

    Lola: Less is more. Great maxim! My trouble always comes in generating realistic-sounding dialogue. Tics galore!

    Susan: synonyms sometimes help. I often have to rewrite the sentence entirely.

    Jen: I don't think it's necessarily a newbie thing. Many established writers have verbal tics. I worry that mine are as annoying as those of the author whose piece I'm editing.

  11. I read my work aloud to catch parts that need work. I also let someone else read it (usually my daughter). This helps a lot. :)

  12. I run a search in Word using highlight results (I've linked to a great post on this from Gary Gorby on my blog). My newest tic catcher is AutoCrit. Normally, I don't like editing programs but with this one ($47 for a year) it will highlight repeated phrases and words. It doesn't tell how to fix it though...that's up to you!

  13. Yeah. I think my characters all smile way too much. I just want to show that they're happy, but my betas are always complaining about the smiling.

  14. "Oh yes, alas I do," she said sagely.

  15. Um, yeah. Thank goodness for crit partners, beta readers, word search, reading aloud--all the resources that help us to see our blind spots.

  16. oh yes. And I didn't see them until I had someone edit it professionally. Now I think I'm over-aware of them!

  17. Yes, I've had tics and will probably develop new ones. I'm a manic editor but trust my CP to catch what I miss. Plus, I write in Scrivener which gives me a frequency count of every word. If there are 100 occurrences of "was" in a ten page chapter, it doesn't take a second set of eyes to know there is a problem. :)

  18. Great advice - Check for Tics. 'Course that means something more where I live, central MN, the heart of woodticks and deerticks that spread diseases. I had one on my foot the other morning. Yikes! I think the best way to find those suckers in our writing is to read aloud to ourselves, then to others, find out where we, or they, get tripped up, or we hear something way too much!

  19. Oh yes, I can relate. My character has a conversational, teenage way of narrating, and I find superfluous instances of "I mean" and "like" and "you know" ...ugh! Definitely need to cross those out. A little is good for voice, but not too much.

  20. I was just cruising through my pages trying to put together some character sheets. (What color are his eyes again? Are they icy blue or gray blue or ???) I ran into the same phrases again and again.

    Part of this was deliberate just to keep me moving forward. I allow myself to use generic phrases if something richer doesn't present itself right away, knowing I'll come back later and edit. Still it was disturbing to see how wide-spread this was.

    Revisions are gonna be sooooo much fun.

  21. Karen: Good tip--I think I would likely hear things more aloud.

    Jenna: Thanks for all the great ideas. I'll check out the post you mentioned.

    Natalie: How do you fix the smiles? I think I've got to the point where I've started mixing in chuckles and giggles, but laughing is one of my tics for sure.

    Bish: HA! You're awesome. Thanks for the giggle.

    Tricia: I like the word search idea, but wonder how you go about figuring out which ones to choose. Read alouds? Perhaps. Maybe I'll try that.

  22. AA: I sometimes stupidly think "Hey, I'm a professional editor and I don't make newbie mistakes." Yeah, right. Pride comes before the fall. :-) I definitely do become more sensitized once my crit group points something out.

    VR: Another software solution! Yes, machinery is good at doing tedious work like finding repetitions.

    Mary: I was playing on the "tick check" idea, actually. Dozens of my friends have had Lyme, so the bloodsuckers are definitely on my radar. I think our writing tics can be similarly parasitic, sucking away power from our prose.

    Miss V: I know what you mean. I'm starting to use brackets a lot, so that I go back and insert fresh details, rather than go generic and miss seeing the need to change in revision. When I'm in fast-draft mode, some sentences look like this:
    My cousins play tug-of-war with [object].
    I stroll past shop windows [describe].

    Shelly: I'm so with you on that one. I throw in a lot of sarcastic asides too. I probably need to trim some, as well as expand the list.