Writing quirks. We all have them. Sometimes a writing quirk is just a bad habit, one we should take extra care to extinguish – or at minimum become acutely aware of and question ourselves about. For me, one of my quirks is a tendency to get list-y: "Hello my name is Lisa and I am a serial comma and semi-colon abuser." Another I've mostly eradicated from my prose is the one-word paragraph comprised of the word still or yet.
Over the last few months I've advised students, editing clients and writers I coach about their individual writing quirks. A few involved dialogue tags: One writer loved adverbs (Bob said heartily), another seemed unable to use the verbs said or asked (Mary enthused; he entreated), and a third writer combined both (Sue heartily enthused; Joe entreated smugly).
Other bad habits I've seen recently include memoir writers beginning nearly every sentence with the pronoun "I"; overuse of one particular favorite (usually hackneyed) phrase ("and so with that," "not that it mattered"); starting a new paragraph every few sentences whether it makes sense or not; continually referring to an important secondary character in terms of their relationship to the main character rather than by name ("my mom" instead of Mother, Mama, Mom; "her brother" rather than Joe); and – one of my particular favorites – repeatedly using the exact same word or descriptor for an item that is central to the story ("the red dress" 10 times in one page; if it's not to make a poetic point, couldn't that item at least once or twice, be a frock, outfit, garment, piece of clothing, silky confection, or depending on its design, a sheath, gown, sundress, cocktail dress?).
Oh dear. Was that list-y of me?
Some writers are so overly enamored of a single word, they will find ways to use it far too many times in one piece; a few recent ones I've encountered: superior, blanch, quibble, obstreperous.
Then there's "it".
I once challenged a writer to do a spell check and count how many times he used it in a 1200 word essay. Answer: 46. My pet peeve with *it* is that very often the reader won't immediately know what *it* refers to precisely; or the meaning shifts, from one *it* to the next; and more importantly, that using *it* substitutes for bringing readers closer in to the story and further inside a character's head.
Example: It was a glorious day so John called in sick even though it would get him in trouble. It didn't matter. He'd already decided that it was no longer worth it. Fix: Monday morning's glorious sunrise convinced John to call in sick. He knew Mr. Morgan would make a negative note in his performance review folder, but that didn't matter. By then, John had decided he'd been humiliated by a demeaning job long enough and would no longer worry about the consequences.
Many writing quirks can be solved by awareness and practice with alternate ways of expressing ourselves. Sometimes I challenge a writer to produce something without a single adverb, or using only said or asked, or writing sentences longer than five words, or never longer than 12 words. Once, I limited a memoir writer to no more than three uses of *I* per page.
As for me, when I revise I am keenly aware of my terrible friend the serial comma and my tendency to want to list things. An instructor once told me: periods are free and for a while I kept a sticky note on my computer with that written on it.
Another way to kill your quirks is by constantly striving to be more precise, because many bad habits have to do with avoiding precision. Unless we are being purposely imprecise or ambiguous for metaphorical, style or poetic reasons, we need to work hard to help a reader see and understand our exact, specific, precise meaning.
Some writing quirks are actually good habits, just gone a little (or a lot) awry. Think of the writer who is a master of interesting description: Terrific when we're reading about the main character's new house, or the place he's traveled, or the office she's coveted and is now hers; maybe not so great when we're asked (for no reason related to plot or character development) to read paragraphs of description of a pot, blouse or pencil.
One writer I worked with wrote stunning dialogue. But not every story she wanted to tell could be done best via conversation. Another created richly innovative metaphors; but after reading five in a row in a single paragraph, fatigue set in (for me at least). One writer whose work I otherwise particularly liked, took too much to heart the typically good advice about ending a paragraph with a striking or powerful image or word, and began ending every paragraph with a word that sent me running to the dictionary.