Editing Your Fiction: What are Your Writing “Tics”?

Haven't I heard that already? From you? Six times?

Haven’t I heard that already? From you? Six times?

So, the last book in my fantasy trilogy is set to release soon. Doing one final pass through “The King’s Sons,” mainly for proofreading purposes and to cut a phrase here or there that I don’t need—I’m looking at you, direct address—I’m finding some examples of what I like to call “writing tics.”

A writing tic is a word, phrase, or grammatical structure that’s fine in itself, but that you, personally, overuse to a point that becomes distracting. It’s your go-to, simple, easy way to express some emotion or some concept that you have to express multiple times in your novel.

Writing tics will be very author-specific, because each of us is different. For instance, in “The King’s Sons,” I have variations of “I know you,” all over the place.

I tend to use that phrase in dialogue, when one character is talking about his or her assessment of another. Here are some of the more prominent examples from the novel:

  • “You can do this. I know you, and you can do this. On top of that, I’ll be praying constantly….”
  • I barely know you, but….”
  • “There wouldn’t be a spell you wanted to learn you wouldn’t master. I know you, Kansten. You’d be a far superior sorcerer than me, which means I wouldn’t dare do something like this.”
  • “Promise me you’ll look out for one another. I know you two. You’ll  take better care of a brother than you’ll guard yourself.”
  • “You would have gotten killed on your first assignment. I know you, and you’re not the assassin type.”

And that’s only some examples. It’s insane. It’s too much.

Worst of all? Almost of these examples come from different characters. It’s not as though I have one character specifically who tends to talk that way. That would make sense in its way.

Now that I realize this use of “I know you” is something I do too much, I’m paying close attention to it when it crops up. While I’m keeping some examples–like the first one, because I really like the emphasis on how the woman speaking is trying to help her husband feel confident–a number of them aren’t difficult to do away with. Observe:

  • “There wouldn’t be a spell you wanted to learn you wouldn’t master. You’d be a far superior sorcerer than me, which means I wouldn’t dare do something like this.”
  • “You would have gotten killed on your first assignment. You’re not the assassin type.”

So, that’s a writing tic. I’ve developed a quick and easy guide for dealing with your personal tics in your writing.


  1. Ignore the concept completely when you’re writing a first draft. Seriously. Your only job when writing a first draft is to finish that draft. Your inner editor will give you enough problems without giving him the fodder of your writing tics.
  2. While editing, or even before, consider what your tics might be. What phrases do you use a lot? What verbs? Adjectives? Adverbs? You can make a list.
  3. Add to your list as you read through. When you notice certain turns of phrase repeating ad nauseum, add them to your list.
  4. Do document-wide searches for your list items. I got this tip from Melissa Foster’s site, www.melissafoster.com.  She’s the founder of the World Literary Cafe. Without making a point of changing every single occurrence–because that’s just not necessary–cut where you can. (You’ll be surprised how often you can cut.) Try to reword in a natural way when you can’t cut.

That will help your writing flow better. It will improve your style: variety is one of the most important aspects of good style.

May 31! Mark your calendars!

May 31! Mark your calendars!


46 responses to “Editing Your Fiction: What are Your Writing “Tics”?

  1. Great post, Victoria. I like the idea of using the search function – seems obvious, but it isn’t!

    I’m sure I have many tics, but at least one of them is the use of ‘just’ or ‘simply’ when it’s almost always unnecessary.

    Kelly’s Eye – Writing, Music, Life

  2. Writing tics are the bane of my life! As you say, in a novel you can ignore them in the first draft and use search function later (I do that for words like Wow, that I use far too much.) at the moment, though, I’m writing a novel in daily instalments on my blog and therefore editing each post separately (often at midnight!) so I don’t notice the tics until I come to collate the posts into the monthly Ebook. As I’ve decided not to do further editing for the Ebook it means I cringe at all the repeated words, phrases and sentence structures. I love the idea of writing a list of the worst offenders to cross reference against – that’s great advice.

  3. Great advice! I use “just” and “little” far, far too much!

  4. Oh yes, I can relate to this one. There are a few words that just creep in too much – just like Mr Kelly above, I use ‘just’ far too often.
    The other one is ‘shrug’. Maybe it’s something that I do a lot – my characters ‘shrug’ far too often and I always have to use the ‘search & destroy’ option to eliminate some of them.

    • For you it’s shrug. For me it’s throwing arms around people’s shoulders. ALL. THE. TIME. haha! Unfortunately, the fix gets a bit more difficult sometimes when a verb’s involved, doesn’t it?

  5. There is nothing left to do but pray, is one of mine. I have been hunting it down and slaying it, but I just can’t stop saying it!

    • i hear you!!! knowing it’s a problem is 3/4 of the battle, though 🙂 truly. it’s hard to let go our pet phrases. so even if you keep using it, if you’re able to go back and slay it, you’re golden 🙂

  6. Great article! And I agree, the search function is your best friend. I thought I had been doing well with exclamation points, and found that I had over 150 in my 70k novel when I searched it. Now it’s under 40 and I feel much better!

  7. Let’s see, just, that, smile, and in this book “It’s not your fault. We don’t blame you.” Search and replace has saved me many, many times.

  8. Because my novels are set by a lake, I am always having people look out at the water – eeekkkk – and I make people shrug way too often – I go back on rereads and try to visualize these things like a movie and sometimes I burst out laughing with all the gazing out the windows and shrugging. Tic, tic, tic

  9. I’m writing memoir and one valuable comment for me was that I was using “I think” too much. Have been following you for a couple of weeks now and have been on the lookout for “simply” and “just” as I work through the current version. Great post!

  10. For me, I tend to use “Like I/he/she/they always say(s)” or “As I/he/she/they said before…” and I use the word ‘because’ a lot when really it isn’t necessary in many sentences. The effect follows the cause and the relationship is obvious – because is not needed.

  11. I have so many writing tics I’m beginning to think I should cut everything else and leave the tics to do their work…. But seriously, two particularly egregious ones for me are “seemed” and “as if.” These are bad not only because I overuse them but because they deflect me from making direct statements.

    • that’s a GREAT point. It’s also so much more powerful to be direct, to hit your reader head-on with the drama, and the action, and the emotion of a scene. 🙂 Thanks for that insight, Joshua!

  12. Using the search function is a great idea to revise writing tics. I tend to use em dashes too much and find I need to scale back and find different transition words.

  13. -seemed

    These are some of my overused words. it’s a real pain to get rid of them or find other ways to describe some of the things my characters tend to do all the time like ‘shrug’ too, lol.

  14. angel7090695001

    I use a instead of an.

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  16. I am cursed with the word “very”. I use a free online grammar checker which also checks overused words and I won’t even post how many there were. I was shocked. (I originally wrote “very shocked”…gasp) Now I put a post-it note on my computer monitor with a list of words to try not to use and that helps a little. Your tips are going to be so useful to me. Thank you for writing this.

    • You’re welcome!!! That post-it is a GREAT tip. Mark Twain once wrote, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

  17. Oh I love that! I hadn’t heard that one before. I am writing it on a post-it as I type this. LOL

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  19. my proof reader says i have a few “tics” one of which was a definite trait i put in about the way people spoke in the story. Apparently “it grates” so i have to re-think that. It is one thing giving a tag or trait to something or someone, but if readers think it is annoying and grates, then i have to do something about it. Unless, that is exactly the response i want, in which case YIPPEE!!
    Great tips as always, Victoria
    keep writing for you know you have to

    • thanks! I love what you say here because it’s so true!!! It’s important to listen to reader reaction. Keep in mind that one reader’s response may not be typical, so it might help to get feedback from other people, too. Generally, though, I cut down whenever one a beta reader tells me something like that. Best of luck with your editing!

  20. One of the other things I know I do, is to string two sentences together with the word “which”. It is clumsy and lazy and I am getting out of the habit of it. I used to be a geologist and long and verbose reports where the norm and it has given me some bad habits, but on the plus side, a great deal of data and resouces for my writing.
    Keep writing for you know you have to…..

    • oh, YES. academic writing influencing your fiction…. I know all about that 🙂 It’s okay to use that which in a first draft, don’t forget. Just take care of them during editing, and you’re golden 🙂

  21. It’s interesting to read of all the tics everyone has. I just had to delete every stop, pause and look because everyone was constantly stopping, pausing and looking – at each other, out the window, anywhere and everywhere they could. Don’t ask what they’re doing now but there are definitely more action words involved!

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  24. I like to play around with tools like http://www.wordle.net/. It’s fun, and it’s a great way to find out overused words. Doesn’t work on phrases, though.

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