The Joy of Hunting Tics

thetick

So far this year, I’ve written six short stories, which I’ll be wrapping together into a collection that will be released this summer. I’ve submitted all of them to multiple publications, and they’ve all been rejected. I’ve published most of them on Amazon, and haven’t had enough sales to buy a bagel and coffee.

But the effort – nights, weekends, lunch breaks, early morning train rides – hasn’t been wasted. Through the constant experimentation allowed by short fiction, I’ve learned quite a bit about outlining, character development, dialogue, and endings, among other things.

The most helpful lesson, though, has been discovering my own writing tics. One of my editing passes is always a sit-on-the-hands-and-just-read-the-story exercise. This is the editing pass where I try to pretend the piece was written by someone else. I examine whether I’ve left holes in the plot or other mysteries that wouldn’t be clear to a reader who’s not inside my cranium. Occasionally, I’d find one of these oversights. But every time I did this read, some writing tic – a repeated word or construction – would grab my attention.

After a while, I decided to start keeping track of them, and I now have a list of fifty of these little buggers. I now devote an editing pass to interrogating each one of these tics to make sure they are essential in their place and whether there is a stronger phrasing I could use. I haven’t banned these words from my stories – it is incredibly stupid to ban any word or expression from your work – but they often serve as indicators of weak language, imprecision, or missed opportunities.

For example:

I used to start a lot of sentences with some variant of “There was.” This construction is a holdover from my days of adolescent Hemingway reading. The vagueness of the two words lends a detached, Voice of God effect to a sentence, rather than keeping the reader planted in the character’s head, seeing the world the way a particular person would see it. Most of these I’d rewrite to focus on the main object being observed. So “There was a weathered boat bobbing in the ocean” would become “A weathered boat bobbed in the ocean.” Tighter. Cleaner. More immediate.

I also used to hang “began” or “started” in front of a character’s action. Those are simply unnecessary words, and they can become distracting when repeated too often.

The last one I’ll talk about is “thing” words. Something, everything, or just plain old “thing.” These words crop up when I’m writing quickly and can’t think of the exact right word, but I don’t want to stop the flow so I drop down a “thing” and keep going. “Thing” words can be replaced with a more precise word almost every single time, and the sentence is immediately improved. “That was the thing that annoyed her the most” becomes “That was the habit that annoyed her the most.” “Something about the place gave him the creeps” becomes “The way no one made eye contact gave him the creeps.”

Making these changes during editing feels like being at the optometrist with my face in the phoropter and having the little lenses click over, sharpening the clarity of my vision bit by bit.  What’s interesting is that scrutinizing my own work in the editing phase has made me so familiar with these tics that I have since cut down on them during the composing phase without much conscious effort. The stronger phrasings have become instinct.

Does anyone else devote a whole editing pass just to tic removal? What are your writing tics?

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