Quelling Quirks

Here’s a post from Writer Unboxed: Quelling Those Writerly Quirks

We all have them. Our peculiar, individual tics. And no, they’re not the same as a “voice.” They’re scamps that sneak into our writing, and weaken it. I have a document on my desktop called Check For, with a long list of words and phrases to track when I do a “search-and-destroy” edit...

This made me laugh. I mean: both a wry laugh of recognition and shared annoyance and with actual humor.

One of the early readers for INVICTUS said, basically, “And quit using ‘very’!” Of course she was right, and of course you all know what’s happened, yes? The problem is that because Ryo uses “very” all the time, I’ve let myself use the word much (much) more freely than I used to, and now it’s a quirk, or at least a habit, that needs to be quelled. Did I take ALL instances of “very” out of INVICTUS? No, but I took out the vast majority. Most that remain are in phrases such as “That’s the very one, yes,” or “The very same,” or whatever. Phrases where the word is intrinsic to the larger phrase.

I haven’t updated my “check for” list, but I need to. It’s a growing list, as perhaps you might imagine. Or perhaps not, but I assure you, it is.

My characters have chins, shoulders, and eyebrows that lift. Lips, jaws, and throats that tighten; eyes that narrow, widen, meet, and lock.  And, of course, bobble heads that are constantly nodding, shaking, tilting, dipping, and getting tossed. Gently. Softly. Carelessly.

Another wry laugh, because yes. I generally catch this during some part of the proofing process, but if a character inclines her head twice on one page, well, ugh. That’s the flip side of movement tags; if someone nods, then someone else nods, then the first person nods, well, that’s a lot of nodding.

“Ever since I read Stephen King’s directive to eliminate adverbs, I cringe every time I wander into the -ly universe. So I try to avoid saying: ‘She went home quickly.’ Instead: ‘She rushed home.’  But if you combine that with the admonition to avoid pronouns referring to the third person POV narrator, wonky sentences result. ‘The wind pushed her home.’  Then I look at all those choices, and decide to ignore the rule. ‘She ran home.’”

What rule? There’s a rule to avoid pronouns referring to a third-person pov protagonist? Really?

Honestly, this is yet another instance of “There’s a rule? Throw it out!” That goes quadruple for proscriptive rules: Don’t use said, don’t use adverbs, don’t use adjectives, whatever. And now don’t use pronouns, seriously? Just say no to proscriptive rules. Oh! THERE’S a rule to follow:

Don’t take proscriptive advice seriously.

Probably almost every aspiring author would be better off putting that on a banner above their computer.

Here’s the take home message from the linked post:

  • Check the frequency and placement. It’s not simply the number of times a phrase appears in a manuscript, but how close together. Will the reader remember (or care) that she read the phrase she narrowed her eyes fifty pages ago? Probably not. It might be okay. My rule of thumb: no more than once in a single chapter or scene.
  • Get rid of it.  As an experiment, try deleting some of those narrowed eyes and wistful smiles. Is anything really lost? The paragraph might even be stronger without it. Or try expressing the same idea in a simpler, more direct way. Trying to be “creative” doesn’t always enrich the writing. If the language pulls the reader out of the scene, it may distract from her experience, rather than enhancing it.
  • Go global, instead of specific. If eyes are always blinking and widening and darting, try substituting a gesture or movement that uses the whole body. Or, at least, a different body part, one you haven’t used a lot.  Of course, a character only gets so many flinches and freezes and backward staggers; “going global” is another tactic that can turn into a tic if overused.
  • Vary interiority and exteriority. If your character is always telling herself what she is feeling (excess interiority), try shifting that experience into a gesture or visceral sensation. Or the reverse.  Too many blinks and shrugs?  Give her a thought instead.
  • Forget about Stephen King. Sometimes a “rule” really needs to be broken. Adverbs are not always the enemy.

Good for the author! Indeed, adverbs are not always, or even often, the enemy. Most writers are not so incompetent with adverbs as the proscriptive advice “kill all adverbs” assumes, and it does not matter one jot that Stephen King hates adverbs.

Schoolhouse Rock: Anything that can be described can be described some more!

However, yes, I do need to update my “check for” file, because I removed literally 180 instances of “very” from the first half of INVICTUS.

Please Feel Free to Share:


5 thoughts on “Quelling Quirks”

  1. In my professional writing I routinely go on a “which” hunt in manuscript drafts, because I’m highly likely to use “which” when “that” would be a better choice.

  2. OtterB, I had one copy editor who drew my attention to that particular quirk so forcefully that I finally nailed down the rule. I trained myself to put “which” after a comma and “that” if there was no comma, and I think I now consistently get it right.

  3. That’s what really helped me, OtterB, because the rule about nonrestrictive or restrictive is obscure and requires thinking carefully, but commas I just do by feel, so I can just go for which or that without thinking at all. I can’t remember if the copy editor told me that or if I realized it on my own, but it was VERY helpful for me and I hope it is for you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top