Breaking habits, tics, and tweaks–critique partners required!

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 9, 2012
Categories: Craft
Comments: 2 Comments

All writers have stylistic habits.  Good ones give us that ineffable “voice.”  Bad ones require assistance to root out and destroy.  These verbal tics range from small–in my case, over use of just, upwards, the em dash, and descriptions of hair–to large ones such as over use of sentence fragments and similar sentence structures.

The tricky bit is finding our tics.  We don’t tend to notice our own habits.  Here is where critique partners and editors are invaluable.  They see what we gloss over.  Once we know where the quicksand is, we can fight back.

Part of careful revision is examining each sentence and varying the way we use language.  I love the “search” function in Pages (the Mac counterpoint to Word).  It allows me to search on “hair,” for example, and see all 127 instances in the manuscript.  I can jump from “hair” to “hair” and choose describe other facets of my characters.

Repeat this enough times, and I guarantee it will break you of the habit!  After eliminating something like a million instances of just in my first novel (okay maybe only 198), I cringe at typing the word, even when my editor wants me to add it.

But what about those big issues?

Ever tried this site: I Write Like?  You paste in a few paragraphs of your writing.  It crunches away on some sentence analysis and–POP!–out comes your writing doppleganger.  I just put in the first few paragraphs of this post and…

… I write like H.P. Lovecraft.  (That is a truly weird result!)

The point here is that we have repetitive patterns in our writing and these can be highly influenced by what we are reading or writing in other contexts.

A fascinating recent article in the New York Times by Michael Erard, describes this phenomenon which is called “structural priming” or “syntactic persistence.”

He describes it this way:

“Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically… Our words and sentence patterns are also primed in the same way, such that the words we chose are the words we will choose later.”

Some of the less egregious cases of “accidental” plagarism could, no doubt, be chalked up to this kind of priming.  Erard offers some excellent fixes to this problem for writers.  I want you to read the rest of his article to get them.

Getting back to the role of critique partners… I’ve often thought it would be a great exercise to try and write in the style of one of the other Scrivas.  I bet I could nail it!

And just for Emma Dryden, I promise I won’t describe anyone’s hair fanning out behind her!

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  1. this post is quoted by I Write Like? « Musings of a Steampunk says:

    […] I was scrolling through her writer’s group’s blog and found the link to the I Write Like? site, a fascinating look at how your normal cadences and […]

  2. […] and approach.  It helps avoid issues of syntactic persistence, about which I’ve blogged elsewhere.  However, I have missed disappearing into a truly extraordinary piece of fiction.  So it was […]

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