Habits in writing are natural. Like any other habit, they serve as a safety net and a place where we can surround ourselves in comfortable things that work for us. In short fiction, these habits might not stand out so much. In long fiction, however, repetitious formulas can jolt a reader from the narrative.
The list below is a few pointers on
craft habits that I tend to give writers during the critique process.
They’re only guidelines, not rules, and as such are totally meant to be
ignored at any given time.
Passages of time
once critiqued a writer who used “she waited a beat” as a way to
express a moment passing, and I hadn’t seen this before, so I liked it.
But then she used it again. And again.
There might be times where
simply “a moment passed” is completely necessary. Oftentimes, however,
it doesn’t need to be done. Instead, it might be possible to actually
describe what happens in that moment, whether it’s simply just the
characters seething with tension and expressing it physically.
“She looked away. They were silent for a tense moment.”
“She looked away. Her fingers picked at her jeans. The breeze tickled the gathering sweat on the back of her neck.”
steps of action can be used as a tool to slow down the narrative or
create a certain mood, but if that’s not the intention, then this might
be the end result:
“She walked down the hall and grabbed the doorknob. She unlocked the deadbolt and pushed open the door. She stepped outside.”
is a lot of unnecessary fat that would be trimmed right off in
revision. Not every second of a scene (or between scenes) needs to be
captured if there’s not plot or character development, so it’s fine if
all that is summed up to simply:
“She went outside.”
felt, saw, heard, tasted, touched, etc. Any time the aforementioned is
used, the writer removes the reader from the story one full step.
Instead of diving headfirst into the description, this makes the reader
test the water with their big toe first.
“I heard the wolf cry.”
“The wolf cried.”
“I tasted cinnamon.”
“Cinnamon burned on my tongue.”
“I touched the cold water.”
“The cold water stung my fingertips.”
moderation, at the right moments, perhaps to create a certain mood or
to communicate a sort of disconnect (such as in dreams or fragmented
memories), using these phrases can be effective as well.
like “back” and “around” are my greatest dependencies. I use them so
frequently that everyone is looking back or turning back or reaching
back or handing back. Even worse, sometimes my characters will turn back
Word tics stunt a writer in creatively approaching
action. I’ve read about agents who loathe the word “look” and said to
simply describe what the character is seeing. There are certainly times
where these words are absolutely necessary, but they shouldn’t serve as a
crutch. (You can read more about word tics in this post.)
Clichés lose their meaning over time, and because of this, they often don’t work well in regards to description.
“He had a chiseled face.”
“Her eyes sparkled like diamonds.”
are phrases that have been used and abused to the point where readers
will glaze over the cliché in question without digesting the words, or
readers will read the cliché and think of another story where they last
read it. (Or maybe even roll their eyes because diamonds.)
writers, it’s our job to invent new ways to describe the same things.
It’s also important to note that clichés can be reinvented, a twisted
new take on old phrases, so to speak, and also that some characters
might simply be prone to clichés as part of who they are.
Awesome unusual words
we find a super cool word that we love to use and reuse. It simply
works in a sentence and conveys precisely what we want to convey. The
word might not be all that unusual, but strange enough that it stands
out if we use it twice in a chapter. The more we use it, the more it
loses its efficacy.
“The blistering cold shower water…”
“The blistering wind…”
assume the first example sentence just needs to have the word
blistering. In that case, it might actually be best to rework the second
sentence to let the reader infer the word “blistering”.
wind ripped the swell of condensation from her lips. Her eyes burned as
she crossed the patches of grass, her stiff fingers buried deep in the
pockets of her coat. She knew the sparse green blades would be dead with
frost in the morning.”
(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)