Friday, August 19, 2016

Writing Tics: The ‘Comfort Food’ of Writing

Do you have any writing tics (habits or problems which you repeat in your prose)? How do you deal with them?

by Paul D. Marks

“Go to hell,” I said with a Jack Nicholson grin. I jammed outta there, jumping in the car, slamming my foot down on the gas. The blood spread across my shirt like a Rorschach blot. I smiled. Shot out of there like a bat out of hell (hey, I made that one up, didn’t I?).

The above graph is from nothing I’ve written before today. But it could be a taken-to-extreme example of my writing tics. I do have certain words or expressions I fall back on, the “comfort food” of writing.


My characters tend to grin and smile. Not only guns shoot, but people shoot out of places, shoot here or there. They jam here and slam there and jump all over the place. So I definitely repeat certain words or phrases. Sometimes intentionally (hey, that’s my style, man), sometimes not so intentionally. And I do use Word’s Navigation feature (I think that’s what it’s called) to see how many times I might use a particular word or phrase. And I often cut them or rephrase them. And I also often start sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’ but that is a stylistic choice. A voice choice, if you will, as I think it makes my narrators sound more natural and casual, which I like.

I also tend to use the word just maybe just a little too much. But it’s just because I just like the justness of it. Now, even I think that’s just too much of a good thing.

Even Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame, says “I'm trying to wean myself off my very Gen X abuse of the word 'literally. Gone Girl contains at least 33 uses of the word, which is 32 more times than any single novel needs.” This is where using Word’s Navigation feature can really come in handy and help you weed out those overused words.

And sometimes my characters use clichés—like ‘bat out of hell’—but that’s the way people talk. I also set things off in dashes a lot, so sometimes I try to cut down on that. If you read something of mine with a lot of that—well, you should see the earlier drafts. I use run on sentences, so I sometimes change them to two shorter sentences. And from the opposite side, I sometimes combine two short, choppy sentences into one sentence.

But I try to do better. I really do. I try to change things so they’re not so repetitive. I look things up in the thesaurus. Uh oh!

Stephen King says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” I find that sophomoric—and yes I got sophomoric from the thesaurus when I really wanted to say absurd. But it’s not a word I would generally use. The thesaurus is a great help, despite what Mr. King says. And how many of us eschew them? Of course—I also tend to use ‘of course’ a lot—you don’t want to get those hundred dollar words when a two dollar word will do. But the thesaurus is extremely useful in helping you see things a little differently and pick just the right word for the job.

As I said, my characters smile or grin a lot. Sometimes it’s good to break that up with a different way of saying it. The thesaurus helps. And what’s wrong with that? Sometimes you just need something to help you get out of the rut of using the same words all the time. It’s not to use highfalutin words, but to the find the right word to express what you want to say. Sometimes your brain just needs a reminder of what other words are out there, begging to be a star for a moment.

One person’s tic is another person’s style. But you have to be conscious of what you’re doing and don’t overdo favorite things or lean on too many crutches. So, I do try to look for those weaknesses and repetition in my writing. And remember, it can all be fixed in the editing/rewriting.

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www.PaulDMarks.com


I just heard that my story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” will be coming out in the December issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, last issue of Ellery Queen’s 75th anniversary year. Totally jazzed about that! – Bunker Hill (Los Angeles) was LA’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. Lots of film noirs were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me, Deadly and many others). It’s where John Fante lived when he wrote “Ask the Dust.” It got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people. And in the late 1960s it was all torn down and redeveloped. The fabulous Victorian houses were either destroyed or moved. They even flattened the hills. You can see the contrast of the old and new in the pic below. The insert is a Newell post that I copped from one of the Victorian homes on Bunker Hill before it was to be moved or torn down. It’s an artifact from Bunker Hill and the logo for my Bunker Hill stories and a prized possession.




22 comments:

Art Taylor said...

Great post, Paul--great way to round out this week's discussion. I always search for those phrases I tend to overuse (I keep a list) but I've never used that Navigation feature you mention. I'll have to give it a try! And like you, I don't mind the thesaurus, though I understand what King means (having seen students who are clearly relying on it, without fully understanding the nuances and differences between various words).

Congrats on the upcoming story. Can't wait!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Art. I’m excited about the story too.

And I think we do get comfortable with certain phrases or words. I still like using them. Just – just – don’t want to overuse them. I also agree with you about needing to understand the nuances of various words. The thesaurus is a great tool, but like with anything needs to be used judiciously.

RM Greenaway said...

It's strange writerly fun to spy on someone else going through similar editing processes. I feel the same about the thesaurus thing... whatever it takes to find the word that clicks. The Urban dictionary is also useful for un-hip types like me. Also thanks for pointing out the navigation tool - I'll look it up too.

Congratulations on the Ellery Queen story -- that's fabulous!!

GBPool said...

I do a lot of the same things - repeat words ad nauseam, and or but beginning sentences, unnecessary phrases... Three dots or a dash to end a cut-off sentence. BUT, I have found using the "text to speech" feature on my computer really helps. I can hear what I wrote from the little mechanical voice's lips and very often I change a word or phrase or even an entire sentence if it doesn't work. I teach a writing class and hand out a card for writers to hang over their computers. Three simple things to ask yourself about any given word/phrase/paragraph: Does it enhance the story? Does it advance the story? Is it redundant?

sarahmchen.com said...

Great post, Paul. I also have my "comfort words" or actually more like "comfort phrases." I use "howls in pain" a lot and "puffed his chest out." I also have characters grin, stare, and glare. I also start sentences with "and" and "but." I often do a "find" search in Word to find these crutch words.

Have you heard of a helpful guide called the Emotion Thesaurus? I've never used it, but I've heard other writers mention it and it sounds interesting. It's supposed to provide the writer with different ways of expressing character emotions.

Congrats on the EQ story, Paul!

Alan Orloff said...

Pretty good post, Paul. Not surprising, because you're a pretty good writer, full of pretty good ideas, which you execute pretty well. I'm pretty sure I have a writing tic or two myself!

AJ Wixcox said...

Keep on Keeping on. I rather like the phrases you use Paul.

M.M. Gornell said...

Oh yes, Paul, those comfort words! I have a list, and when editing do a search on them, and even though I've mentally tried not to use, there they are--and quite plentiful. One of my favorites, is "Indeed," and then there's "nonetheless," and the list goes on...

I'm a P.D. James admirer, and if a novel doesn't send me to the dictionary at least once, I'm a little let down. (smile)

Excellent post, made me think--a good thing.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, RM. Yeah, I’m jazzed about the story for EQ. And have actually already sold them another with the same characters/setting.

And I use the Urban Dictionary all the time too. Though I think it used to be better. They seem to have stopped the “thesaurus” aspect of it. And I hope I used the correct term. To get to the Navigation tool you just hit Control-F. It’s sort of a find function but also lists how many times you use a word that you type in.

Paul D. Marks said...

Those are three great questions, Gayle. Someday I’ll tell you about one of my former screenwriting partners and how she approached those questions… I haven’t used the text to speech too. I should give it a try.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Sarah. Love that, “howls in pain.” Stare and glare, those are two I forgot to mention, but we’re in the same club there. And then you sit there trying to find other words or ways to say those two…

I haven’t heard of the Emotion Thesaurus. It sounds like a great idea. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for mentioning it. -- I just went and found this on Amazon. I think it might be what you were talking about: The Emotion Thesaurus A Writer's Guide To Character Expression Paperback, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for a pretty nice answer, Alan. Just from that response I’m pretty sure you have no writing tics.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, AJ. I plan to keep using them. I just worry now that for anyone who’s read this they’ll stand out like bombs bursting in air.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Madeline. That’s a great idea to keep a list. I mostly just have certain things in my head that I try to remember. Indeed and nonetheless are good ones too. As for going for the dictionary, I agree with you. That’s how we learn new words. And it’s fun and challenging.

Allan J. Emerson said...

Paul, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who likes dashes--I'm a dashaholic and I can't quit. Eventually, I'll probably dispense with periods entirely--they seem so final, where dashes link sentences in friendly, supportive neighborhoods of prose.

Paul D. Marks said...

Allan, we should probably form a support group: Hi, I'm Allan (or Paul) and I'm a a Dashaholic. :)

They do seem to work better for certain things than commas or periods, don't they?

Debra Obinna said...

Great advise Paul. My everyday writing is terrifying and I'll need to join your support group for dashaholics.

Congratulations on a second story in Ellery Queen! I can't wait for that to hit the electronic market!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Debby! And welcome to Dashaholics Anonymous! You'll get your button shortly.

And Ellery Queen does do e-versions, I believe. And I think they come out when the paper one does.

Jackie Houchin said...

A great post, Paul. You have vindicated me! I used to cower before Stephen King's dismissive, omniscient advice, my hand stopping and trembling as I reached for the Thesauras on the shelf. Now, I can use sophomoric and apposite to my content.
OF COURSE I do not have a string of best selling books like he does.
AND I don't have any books or collections of short stories in Ellery Queen Magazine like you do.
BUT thanks anyway!
I can write free.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jackie. Write free! Stephen King can afford not to use a thesaurus, but us working stiffs need all the help we can get. :)

Nancy Silverman said...

Dare I say ditto? I agree with everything you say. My formal writing began with my broadcast journalism career where I had a professor who would yell at us to write like people talk - and never, never send something to the studio without reading it out loud first. Tone, pace and in certain cases, alliteration - yes, alliteration - were all unique to the on-air broadcast. These were all together different rules than those that applied to print. Years later, understanding broadcast style made it a much easier transition when approaching the blank page for the purpose of writing a novel. However, my editor still shakes her head when she spots all those hyphens and ellipses.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Nancy. And I think if one is writing a term paper then formality is a good thing in the writing. But for a novel, especially in 2016, I think informality, at least to a point, is good. Otherwise it starts to sound stilted. And ellipses are good for the soul ;)