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Home » Books & writing

Writing Tics That Bug Me

Submitted by on July 19, 2010 – 12:05 am 24 Comments

While reading, I’m willing to overlook many minor flaws if what I’m reading is interesting enough. But lately, I’ve come across the following issues so often, they’re beginning to feel like a shiv in my eye every time I encounter them. I’m not talking about blatant grammatical errors (also painful) but writing quirks that take me out of the story. Do any of these annoy you or am I just being bitchy?

  1. Unnecessary dialogue tags. The best writers know how to keep tags invisible and let dialogue speak for itself. It’s distracting when every line of dialogue is marked with adverbs or adverbial phrases. Examples from books I recently read: “he demanded angrily,” “she whispered mysteriously,” “he said inanely,” and “she announced confidently.” In all these instances, it was clear the characters were angry, mysterious, inane and confident, based on what they said. I think all those verbs were superfluous, too; “he/she said” should suffice if the dialogue is strong enough. I like it when a writer is so good, he/she omits the tags altogether because it’s clear who’s saying what and how. (Charlie Huston is a master at this.)
  2. Characters addressing each other too much in conversation. Paraphrased example from a recent novel: “Are you sure, Charles?” “Yes, I am, Jan.” “Be careful, Charles.” “Jan, don’t worry. I’ll call you, Jan.” Every conversation in the book was like this, which made me scratch my own nails on a chalkboard to relieve frustration. I’ve often talked to someone at a party or on a plane for hours and realized later I never got that person’s name because we just don’t address each other that much in real-life conversations.
  3. Overuse of “that.” As in, “I don’t think that he knows that I’m in love with him, but he might soon realize that I am the best friend that he’s ever had.” None of those “that”s is necessary. I don’t think that it’s needed ninety percent of the time that it’s used.
  4. Expository dialogue. Conversation between two sisters: “Have you talked to our grumpy, seventy-year-old dad lately?” “Well, now that he’s moved to the country and his cancer is gone due to his chemo last year, he’s in a better mood.” “How’s Troy?” “You mean my handsome, workaholic attorney husband who somehow managed to plan a surprise 40th birthday party for me last month? He’s great.” “Wow, I wish I had your glamorous life, with your perfect husband, two kids and New York City apartment overlooking Central Park.” Make it stop or I’ll throw myself out that apartment window.
  5. Omission of one of the five “W”s to indicate tough-guy ‘tude. Examples: “The hell you mean?” “The f*ck you think you are?” “The hell didn’t you say so?” Years ago, some writer decided cops and goombahs are too tough to use the five Ws. It didn’t bother me when I occasionally came across it but nowadays, the rampant use of this gimmick as a shortcut to denote surly characters has made it tiresome. The hell did this happen?

What tics tick you off?



  • Yeti9000 says:

    OMG…hilarious! I heartily agree with everything you wrote, I said enthusiastically! 🙂

  • Yeti9000 says:

    Actually, I probably should have said, I typed enthusiastically. But, you know what I meant…

  • LolosLetters says:

    Read a book recently (my first of the author, who had been recommended) that was actually a decent read were it not for the characters calling each other by name INCESSANTLY. It became such a distracting annoyance that I could barely finish the book and will not read another by this author. Which is a shame, because he/she can come up with a decent story. I consider this a huge failure of the editor as well. Is that fair?

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I don’t know if it’s fair but if it’s how you feel then so be it. I had the exact same experience and reaction after reading something recently. It’s unlikely I’ll read another novel by this author now and I do feel I’m being a little unfair towards her, but since there are so many books vying for my time, I’m not going to give preference to one that might annoy me.

      • LolosLetters says:

        My question about being fair is whether it is fair to hold the editor accountable. While discussing this issue with another commenter “off the air” I thought of another one (which, unfortunately, was in the same novel I was commenting on earlier), which is the overuse of the !!!!. The main feelings I came away with from the read were:

        1. The author thought I was stupid and couldn’t tell when there was drama or excitement taking place, hence the vastly overused !!!.

        2. The editor failed this author greatly.

        3. Sadness that this author, who plots a good story, has lost me as a reader and perhaps other readers because of these seemingly silly issues. Is it me as a reader that can’t overlook them? Is it the author who should “know better?” Or is it simply a case of ‘no right answer’ and our styles just don’t mesh? If this author were not supposedly such a nice person I wouldn’t feel so badly. But apparently is, and thus I do.

        Or should I say “Lauren does!”

        • Pop Culture Nerd says:

          I think the editor is partly responsible. Isn’t it her/his job to catch things like the overuse of exclamation points and characters addressing each other? Sometimes writers are too close to their work and that’s why they have editors.

          Your !!! mention made me think of the overuse of italics to stress a point. I read a book many people had told me was brilliant, and it was very smart, but the author used italics in almost every paragraph to say things like, Something was wrong. Or, The door was ajar. It was the equivalent of having loud ominous music in a movie to indicate “This is important—pay attention!” I thought, like you, “You think I’m too stupid to see that?” But the people who recommended the book to me are far from stupid and it didn’t seem to bother them (they didn’t mention it) so I guess it’s a matter of taste and no author can please everyone.

  • Jen Forbus says:

    When I edit, I find myself removing “that” quite often for people. Do we use it a lot in coversation? I never took time to notice. But, yes, it is used inappropriately far too often!

    Conversational tags bother me, but not quite like they do you. First of all, the overuse of he said/she said is annoying as hell, especially when you’re listening on an audiobook. Robert B. Parker wrote great dialogue but he had he said/she said tagged on to almost every statement. I also hate when a question is presented and it’s tagged with he said/she said. Something like volume is hard to ascertain from typed dialogue alone, so I appreciate those distinctions. I don’t think the verb tag should carry the dialogue, but I don’t think “said” should be the only acceptable verb for dialogue either. It gets old fast for me. The tags should be used infrequently however they’re used and if they’re not, it should be an indicator to writers and editors that the dialogue isn’t strong enough…go back and revise.

    The others I don’t think I’ve noticed much in my reading lately. If they’re there, then the rest of the writing is good enough to distract me from them. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen much, if any, of the missing 5 W’s.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I don’t think “he/she said” should be the only tags acceptable, and agree they shouldn’t be abused, either. It’s just distracting when there are too many “growled/cried/barked/shouted,” etc. I think volume can be denoted by ALL CAPS! and exclamation point.

  • Scribbling notes and posting them next to my computer screen. 😉

    Like Jen, I remove “that” a lot from my manuscripts when editing and look for certain words I tend to overuse, often running a find search for them just to make sure.

  • jenn says:

    Oh my gosh! So glad THAT you posted about this conversation THAT we had last night. Ok, am I buggin you?

    You really should have included the overuse of similes. Really. Or maybe I’ll have a companion post up today. 🙂

    I agree about tags, etc. However, I could not get through the only Charlie Huston book I’ve ever picked up for that very reason. Evelyn Waugh was a master of this, Huston, not so much.

    Jen – I concur. Robert Parker is great with dialogue but a little heavy with the tags. His Virgil/Everett series is a perfect example.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I was writing this when we had that conversation. Didn’t want to steal your thought on similes but would love to see your companion piece!

      Which Huston did you read?

      • jenn says:

        The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. I never finished it, and I ALWAYS finish books. It was so distracting. In my opinion, the characters weren’t developed enough so I could tell who was speaking. It was incredibly annoying.

  • Keith says:

    I think “thats” are like commas. Take them out unless the sentence gets more confusing or awkward that way.

    BTW, it’s a tic, not a tick.

  • Rodney North says:

    Elyse, I was just telling my beautiful, brunette Montreal-born wife of 15 years that I think that you nailed it.

  • I love these comments as much as I love your post, PCN! I’m very guilty of over-using exclamation marks and if I ever write a book, I’ll keep it in mind. {Or I’ll keep that in mind.}

  • Travis says:

    As I’m going through a third re-write, trying to get the word count down, I’ve found myself often guilty of tics 1 – 3 and hopefully I’ve removed most of them… though I may have used #5 to make a sentence fit on one line.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      You should try #4, too, just to be a completist. And then remove them all!

      How’s your rewrite going?

      • Travis says:

        Hey Elyse,

        I hope I didn’t violate #4, but it’s tricky. In mystery stories characters usually ask questions and explain the bios of different suspects, colleagues, etc. and then those characters explain themselves when confronted. Like “Weren’t you involved with____” “Yeah, but I also worked for_____, that’s why they call me _____, because I always ____ and____.” (fill in the blanks with your favorite noir cliches.)

        Also I’m finding that I overuse the words “just,” “well” and “so.” They usually sound fine when reading them, but after I take them out I find they weren’t needed at all. I may do a word search to keep them to a minimum.

        Regarding my novel, I’ve got 450 pages down to 396 and I’m still working on it. (15k words out, but I’m shooting for 20.) I want to have it polished before Bouchercon. Hope you are well. Thanks for asking.

        • Pop Culture Nerd says:

          I don’t think your example is expository dialogue. If one character doesn’t know something about the other, even though WE know it, it’s okay if he asks. It irks me when two characters who are close tell each other something the other would obviously know just to fill in the reader.

          I’m rooting for you to finish by B’con!

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