Friday, October 14, 2022

Kill your writing bad habits before they kill your writing, by Josh Stallings


Q: Most of us have a writing tic or two, a word we overuse, a tendency to start sentences with the same word, a motion every character makes. Do you have one or a few, and, if so, what do you do to guard against them?

A: My first drafts have more tics than a Swiss watch. As I learn to tame one, another rears up and bites me. An early bad habit was what editor Elizabeth White referred to as Yodaisms. I would flip the beginning and end of sentences. It took me a while to see this, and a while longer to clear out most of them before showing anything to anyone. This is like any bad habit, it requires me to name it, claim it and then kick it to the curb. (For those counting that is the third metaphor in this paragraph. This may be a new tic showing up like an unwanted dinner guest.)

I believe that first-first drafts need to be written in an edit-proof safe space. Pounded or scribbled with wild abandon, letting passion and intuition guide my mind. When this energy flags, I go back to the latest sections and clean up as well as I am able. 

I need energy to write first-first drafts, I can edit when I’m tired and grumpy. 

Another tic I struggle with, meaningless body movements. Head nods, head shakes. Smiles or grins. I used these in place of dialogue tags. Instead of, “Bobby said” I’d do linguistic backflips or clumsy body movement tags. Bob winked. Shane shrugged.

This aversion to dialogue tags started when I read Cormac McCarthy and Charlie Huston. Neither of them even needs quotation marks for you to know who’s speaking. I respect them both as writers, immensely. But I’m me, not them. 

I was hung up on the way a printed page looks. All those he/she/they saids looked cluttered.  

After driving myself mad to kill all tags, I was pleasure reading and discovered that I don’t notice the tags when I read. I went back and looked at James Crumley, an undeniable word stylist and saw - 

“Whiskey flu,” he said, 
and a two goddamned hour whiskey


“No way,” I said, but the old man had me backing up so

that I didn't even believe myself anymore. Not true.”

“Well,” he said…..

 I then checked the king of brevity Hemingway -

“It is very valuable,” said the lieutenant. “It tells you about those priests. You will like it,” he said to me. I smiled at the priest

and he smiled back across the candle-light. “Don't you read it,” he said.

“I will get it for you,” said the lieutenant.

“All thinking men are atheists,” the major said. “I do not believe in the Free Masons however.”

I noticed in most books I love, a bunch of people SAID things. That gave me freedom to keep it simple. 

I believe my primary job as a writer is to deliver a story that is emotionally truthful and told in a way that best makes the page disappear from the reader’s mind. I love the feeling when a book transports me to another world. And hate when either clunky or overly ornate writing takes me out of the story. 

NOTE: What I call overly ornate others call brilliant. There are books for every  palette. And isn’t that what makes reading so wonderful? 

I still find myself trying to write workarounds for dialogue tags. They are always removed by my editors. Which brings me to another conundrum. As a beginning writer I hated to hear, “You must kill off your darlings.” Why would I kill what I find darling? But my experience with multiple editors has been that those amazing paragraphs, those guaranteed Booker prize winners are always the first to go. What I love about them is also what pulls the reader out of the story.

I equate this to film editors. Anne V. Coates cut everything from Lawrence of Arabia to Out of Sight. She was nominated five times for an Oscar. She was a master at knowing the exact right length a shot should be. She cut so perfectly that you never saw her work, you saw the story. She knew, cut too quickly the audience wouldn’t have time to read a shot, hang on it too long they would feel boredom. Either confusion or boredom take a viewer out of the story. The hat trick is knowing how long it takes to read any given shot. Or in our work, how much information a reader needs to get a story point. That is the magic of this craft. Every person’s brain is different. So we write the way we want to read, and hope there are enough readers out there that have similar preferences. 

One of the best ways to kill sloppy writing habits is to have editors you trust kill them for you. And then when approving their changes take note of the ones that keep cropping up. Quiet the internal voice screaming, “Yes but I do that because…” We can’t show up at every reader’s home and explain why we did something. If we could  it would be creepy. Instead it’s best to pull up your non gendered lower body covering…

Name your tic. Claim it. And kick it to the curb.

In order of full transparency I’m leaving space at the bottom for Erika, my partner in crime and first editor, to chime in on what are her favorite of my writing tics…

Erika wrote: “I’ll never tell.”


Anonymous said...

Genius as ever, Josh. The writing / editing energy difference never occurred to me, but you're dead right.

Anonymous said...

I think the tic curb kicking can be applied to many different habits in our lives. Love it!


Anonymous said...

Susan here. That film editor knew what I keep aiming to do in print. What a good conversation we’ve had this week. I’d like to continue it over a meal, where we all pick sentences we like!