Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writing Quirks and Bad Habits

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.

I would continue, but that might be list-y of me.



Anonymous said...

Nice post. Liked reading about the various quirks as I’m guilty of some of them myself (I won’t tell you which!).

I have a 700-word essay containing 5 instances of ‘it’. Unfortunately I am still scouting markets for it as it remains unpublished.

kario said...

I know I have some writing quirks. Sometimes I wonder where to draw the line between "quirk" and my voice or style of writing. Any tips?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely love this. :-)

Lisa Romeo said...

Thanks, Kristenspina. Nice to see you here again!

Gargimehra, I am sure I have many more bad habits than I've confessed to here! If only *it* were not such a handy word, right?

Kario - Interesting question. I tend to think of voice as emerging and evolving organically from a writer's gut, and is more about tone and stance and not so attached to specific words, phrases, vocabulary choices.

Style on the other hand might be linked to writing quirks, and sometimes in a good way. Think about Bill Bryson's brilliant and deliberate use of adverbs - something another writer who doesn't have Bryson's great voice, probably couldn't pull off without it showing up as a bad habit.

A true bad habit to me is typically something we fall into either through laziness, or perhaps because it once worked for us on the page, but no longer serves our now-improved prose mastery. Or maybe we write fast drafts, and then don't self-edit with rigor and those bad habits then never get challenged. Or a bad habit can be doing over and over again that which we actually do well; but we haven't learned show more restraint with it and then it overtakes a piece and is no longer of value.

I'm interested in what you think.

Unknown said...

In my drafts I've found the word 'that' in almost every sentence - most of which actually dilute what I'm trying to say. My other major quirk is the use of a dash - I can't help it, I love them.

Lisa Romeo said...

Oh, Tamara, you are not alone! In addition to being a member of the Kill-(Almost)All-The-Adverbs club, I routinely try to delete most THATs too.

The em dash and I are fast friends.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post! I've been doing some copyediting and within a a few pages of a new manuscript, I start to recognize the particular style/quirks/iffy habits of the writer. I imagine it's much easier to notice this in another's writing, and perhaps miss it in my own. I often try to read my writing aloud so I can hear those repetitive words.

But Lisa, what do you mean by serial comma abuser? So many authorities recommend it (including Chicago Manual of Style, that bible of copyeditors).

btw, I love the new look!


Lisa Romeo said...

Hi Colleen,

I agree - harder to spot a quirk in your own work than in someone else's. Reading aloud is a huge help (I try to do this when I'm home alone!).

What I meant about my own bad habit concerning commas and lists:
I tend sometimes to turn a simple sentence, using commas to separate a few parallel items, into a long list-like run-on, like this:

For exercise, I used to walk to the bank, or to the post office, or sometimes the grocery store, and occasionally to the library if I was in the mood, or if I was feeling especially energetic, to the diner to meet my sister for breakfast, or even the municipal building, or – my farthest trek -- one time I hiked all the way to mall where I bought a new pair of sneakers, threw the old ones away, grabbed a coffee and walked back home.

Isn't that lovely?
- Lisa