writing tics

Continuing with our June guest posts is my good blogging friend Peter Cooper. I met Peter at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror (OWW) where he was most helpful in pointing out some of my writing tics to me when he critiqued An Autumn Tale. A valuable critique partner, he is also witty as is proven by his own blog posts. Peter’s guest post, Hobbit Letter, was showcased on Nathan Bransford’s blog back in August 2009, and he has other humorous posts that are fun to read.

Peter grew up in the country of South Australia, and has two degrees, one in Ancient History and another in Electrical Engineering. He has worked as a clerk, kitchen-hand, evangelist, sales assistant and currently works as a design-engineer. He wrote a lot throughout his teenage years, but took a break through his 20’s before he resumed writing again in his early 30’s.

I’m really happy I had the opportunity to critique Peter’s novel, The Ghost of Ping-Ling while Peter posted the novel on OWW. It’s a wonderful story full of delightful characters. His debut novel, The Ghost of Ping-Ling, exhibits both Peter’s story-telling talents along with his delightful sense of humor. The Ghost of Ping-Ling will be published by Omnibus Books, an imprint of Scholastic Australia sometime in late 2011:

As a foreigner and an orphan in the parochial little village of Ping-Ling, fifteen year old Dillen finds his days filled with drudgery and boredom. He longs for the day when he can finally leave. When an imperial messenger arrives in the town, and asks him to perform a simple but important task on behalf of the Emperor, Dillen thinks that day may have finally come. But as the task becomes more difficult and dangerous by the day, and as Dillen finds himself pursued by enemies in search of a priceless treasure, he begins to suspect that neither the messenger nor the task are what they seem. 

Keep up with Peter at his blog, The Cackling Scribe, or on Facebook, but definitely don’t let him out of your sight. Meanwhile, I’m most pleased to present Peter Cooper writing about writing tics:

 Writing Tics

by Peter Cooper

It would appear I have two such tics. When I’m writing in third person, my sentences all too often fall into the structure of clause comma participle clause. Examples are: “Dillen shook his head, running his hands through his dirt-clogged hair” and “Koto looked at him, shaking her head and wrinkling her nose.”

When I’m writing in first person, I have a different tic. There, for some reason, I fall into clause comma AS clause. The participle is gone, only to be replaced by “as” (which, I guess, serves the same purpose as the participle). Too many sentences read along the lines of “I sniffed as the little man rummaged through his pockets” or “The woman frowned at me as I reached for the phone.”

Both these word-patterns are my attempt to express simultaneity of action – a character doing one thing while at the same time doing another. Neither of them are incorrect. The problem comes when, like my chapters, the prose is chock full of the same kind of constructs. Not only does it become distracting for the reader, it makes the sentences boring and repetitive – giving your writing a flat feel.

It’s interesting that I didn’t pick up either of these tics myself. Both were noticed by reviewers on the Online Writing Workshop. Only then did I go back and look over my chapters and see, to my absolute horror, that the tics were everywhere.

Not that I should be surprised. I’ve noticed this kind of thing when I’ve been doing reviews for others, too. One example that sticks in my mind is an author who never varied her dialogue tags. Every single line of dialogue was followed by “she/he said” – always in the same place, always with the same words. The rest of her writing was superb, but this was just one thing that she was blind to, until somebody pointed it out.

And that’s the idea. That’s why it’s so vital to have objective readers give you criticism of your work. Now that I’ve noticed my own tics, I can fix them. That means going against my natural grain, and forcing myself to study and use other structures for expressing myself. That’s how we grow.

What are your writing tics? Have you noticed them, or are they hiding within the pages, awaiting some astute reader with an evil grin to point them out?

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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9 Responses to writing tics

  1. I lean on the clause comma participle clause structure more than I’d like. I can feel it most when I’m trying to get through a scene. I have it in my head how it will play out so I look to fill the space between the beginning and the end. It’s almost like a checklist. When I re-read those passages I get bored. For me, the trick is to remember to enjoy the process instead of just racing toward a word count goal or chapter goal. When I am able to do that I get lost in the writing and it shows. Thanks for the post and letting me think out loud here in the comments!

  2. Kelly Bryson says:

    Hey Peter- It took me a while to learn how to vary my sentences At ALL. Writing in first person, I got stuck in ‘I + clause’ and ‘gerund phrase + I + clause’ structures.
    eg- I looked around and saw a dog. OR Looking around, I saw a dog. I’ve learned to get behind the I and just say what is experienced or observed.
    eg- The banging sound in the trashcan continued and a dog appeared. Poor guy was skinny and half his fur’d been rubbed off.
    The main clues are empty verbs like saw, heard, looked, felt, etc. Not sure what the real name for those are, but they aren’t your powerful action verbs. I think of that problem as describing the perception instead of what is perceived.
    Great post Peter and Teresa! I also enjoyed reading Peter’s chapters on OWW and getting his crits. Congrats again, Peter.
    Sometimes that’s okay, just not every time.

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  4. Jan O'Hara says:

    An engineer with twins, huh? No wonder you belong to an online horror group. 😉 Kidding. I’m long-time married to a member of that estimable profession.

    The tic I’m most aware of is overuse of “just” and “one.” I’ve also been caught repeating particularly voice-y phrases. I *might* get away with that in different venues, but not within one manuscript. <—Aaand there I go again with the "one." 😉

    BTW, I'm curious if you've read Ciny Pon's "Silver Phoenix". It's also set in historical China and is a fantasy. Seems like you two might have lots to discuss.

  5. erikamarks says:

    Hi Peter.

    Thanks for the great post. All of us writers have tics and it’s a good exercise to define them. That said, I tend to use lots of: (example) He smiled softy, touched her cheek (eliminating the “and”s), or I’ll overuse gestures: shrugs, head shakes, frowns. It can be downright frightening sometimes to re-read an early draft of a conversation and see the repeats–eeks.

    Personally, I tend to keep my dialog tags of the he said/she said variety because I’ve noticed that if I don’t, I tend to go overboard in the other direction. I find it liberating, honestly, to keep them simple and that it forces me to make the words clarify the emotions (not always easy OR successful, I should add).

    Erika Marks

  6. Eep, I do the same thing!!! Great post!

  7. Peter says:

    Thanks for the great intro, Teresa, and for asking me to do a guest post too! I hope people found it helpful.

    Jan – twins plus newborn. Life is very busy at the moment 🙂
    I have Silver Phoenix on my bookshelf as my next read. From my understanding Cindy’s stuck more faithfully to Chinese legend, rather than taking bits and pieces from everywhere and modifying it like I’ve done. I’m really looking forward to reading it when I get time.

    Erika – something I picked up somewhere is to try and replace dialogue tags with action statements – ie, instead of
    “You’re such an idiot,” Martha said. “Why can’t you be more like Wayne?”
    it becomes
    “You’re such an idiot.” Martha folded her arms. “Why can’t you be more like Wayne?”
    or variants thereof. It’s amazing how much that spices up dialogue.

    Thanks for all the comments!

  8. kat magendie says:

    Sometimes those simultaneous actions are ones that can’t be real actions – when writing “action scenes” I tell writers (when I edit) to imagine the scene really happening – like, “Kat sipped her coffee, typing the words in this sentence” – do I have more than two hands! that kind of thing 🙂

    I’ve been cleaning up my tics and sometimes find new ones, like the other day I was going through my latest project and I had repeated a word that the character liked to say waaaaay too many times . . . didn’t even notice it until about the third editing in! lawd!

    Good news is a lot of times tics aren’t noticed by the reader if the story and characters are compelling – it’s us writers and editors who notice them!

  9. I believe it would be safe to say that I do all of the above and then some. My biggest tics are: missing words (my brain just reads them in there!); repetition (have I driven my point home / driven my point home / driven my point home?); and missing words. 😉

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