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Today we’re talking about writing quirks and how to avoid them. A writing quirk is a pesky habit that sneaks into your manuscript. It's usually on a sentence level, something a line editor or copy editor might help you with. Every writer has quirks, myself included, but the goal is to eliminate or at least lessen them as much as possible.
That's where I come in! I'm listing the 10 most common quirks I see in people's writing. A lot of this comes from my experience back when I used to critique people’s novels, but some of these issues are things that I still see today in published works. Yikes!
Without further ado, let’s get into the quirks! Those little bastards . . .
This video is sponsored by ProWritingAid. As always, all opinions are my own.
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Number 1: Filter Words
Filter words are probably the most common writing quirk in existence. I don't know a single writer who hasn’t struggled with them at some point. Filter words are words that filter the story through the character's experience. They essentially remind the reader that they're reading.
“But Jenna! Of course, they're reading.”
Yeah, but they're not supposed to know that! Reading is an immersive process. It can feel like you're experiencing the story firsthand. Filter words pump the brakes on this, and you don't wanna do that. There are a zillion filter words out there, but a few of the most obvious ones are:
When you go through your manuscript, pay attention to filter words and see if you can cut ’em out. For example, if you wrote, “She realized her car was on fire.” You could instead say, “Her car was on fire.” Easy, right? Sometimes filter words are unavoidable, but nine times out of ten, they're probably unnecessary.
Sometimes filter words are unavoidable, but nine times out of ten, they're probably unnecessary.
Number 2: Crutch Words
Crutch words are words we have a habit of using over and over again, even if there are better options. You may think you don't have any crutch words, but trust me, ya do. The problem is we usually don’t know what our crutch words are until someone else points them out. In my last manuscript, I used the word “scurry” so many times that one of my critique partners started to leave crab gifs all over the document.
There is no avoiding this issue because it's an unconscious action. The best thing you can do is have someone read your work and point it out. Once your crutch words are on display, do a word search through your manuscript, and replace ’em with synonyms.
Number 3: Adverbs
An adverb is more or less an adjective for a verb. They describe actions. A lot of writers crap on adverbs, but the truth is they’re not inherently evil. They only become a problem when writers overuse them because they're not usually necessary since actions kinda already describe themselves.
For example, if someone is running, you don't need to say they “ran quickly,” because the act of running is quick. This is an extremely common quirk, but it's an easy one to break if you implement this single step: do a search through your manuscript for every verb and adverb combo and ask yourself if the adverb is necessary. If your character “smiles happily,” the adverb is kinda useless, because smiles are inherently happy. If your character “smiles uncomfortably,” then the adverb makes sense because the action is happening in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. If your character is “smiling widely,” sure, the adverb makes sense. But you know what would sound a lot better? If the character was “grinning,” instead. A grin is a wide smile, and in this situation, you are ditching a weak verb and replacing it with a stronger, more accurate one.
Number 4: Shifts in Tense
When writing a book, you choose a tense, usually past or present. But some writers struggle with keeping it consistent. An example of this would be, “She saw a bird. It is beautiful.” “Saw” is past tense. “Is” is present. Thus, we shifted, which is a no-no! If you're confused regarding how to spot shifts in tense, pay attention to the verbs–they will tell you all ya need to know.
Now, part of correcting this issue is understanding what isn’t a shift in tense. The first and most obvious is if you are including dialogue or internal dialogue in a past tense book. In situations like this, the narrative should be past tense, while the dialogue and thoughts should be present. An example of this would be, “He stormed into the room and yelled, ‘Where is my brother?’”
The next example revolves around good old present participles. A lot of amateur writers confuse the use of present participles as shifting tense, but that ain't true. For example, the sentence, “He slowed down, stumbling forward,” is past tense, despite the use of the word “stumbling.” “Stumbling” is a present participle, and though the use of the word “present” is in the term, it is not a shift in tense. This sentence is perfectly fine.
If you're confused and want a further explanation, comment below. I could make an entire video all about shifts in tense, what counts as a shift, and what doesn’t.
Number 5: Shifts in Point of View
Shifts in points of view are exactly what they sound like; the story was told from one person's point of view and now it shifts to someone else's point of view.
“But Jenna, that's how I'm writing my book! It's told from multiple perspectives!”
Then this doesn't apply to you, ya big bag of beans! Shifts in points of view become a problem if the story is supposed to be told from one character's perspective. This is easy to avoid in first-person novels because a shift would be blatantly obvious. However, in third-person limited or third-person deep novels, shifts are a lot harder to catch.
If you're not sure what a shift in a third-person novel would look like, here's an example. My book The Savior’s Champion is told in third-person deep from Tobias’s perspective, which means the narration can only comment on what Tobias sees and experiences, and thinks for himself. Tobias is aware that the Queen of his realm is magical, but he doesn't know how her magic works. Thus, if the narration were to suddenly slip into an explanation of her powers, that would be considered a shift in point of view from third-person deep to third-person omniscient. The narration is explaining stuff Tobias has no knowledge of, which means we've left his brain completely.
Number 6: Dialogue Tags
Whoever said “said” is dead should be dead instead of “said.” A lot of writers, myself included, learned that “said” is dead in school and were encouraged to use dialogue tags like “exclaimed,” “demanded,” “responded,” or “ejaculated.” English teachers are dirty rotten liars! “Said” is a great dialogue tag because it's invisible. Readers don't notice it, which makes the dialogue feel more natural.
"Said” is invisible. Readers don't notice it, which makes the dialogue feel more natural.
“But Jenna, I can't just say ‘said’ a million times on the page! It would be too
You're absolutely right! But you shouldn't need a million dialogue tags on the page, regardless. Dialogue tags are only there to let the reader know who's speaking. If the reader can easily tell who is speaking based on the number of people involved in the conversation, or the narrative surrounding the dialogue, then you don't need a tag at all.
For the times you absolutely do need a tag, look at the line of dialogue and ask yourself, “Is the character speaking unusually? Say in a whisper, mumble, or shout?” In those situations, you can use the applicable dialogue tag. However, nine times out of ten, “said” is your best bet.
Number 7: Paragraphs
A lot of writers struggle with paragraph formation, thanks once again to school. We are used to writing essays, where paragraphs are formatted completely differently than in novels. In essay writing, a paragraph has to be a minimum of six sentences. Anything shorter, and you're losin’ points.
In fiction, you'll see paragraphs that are three sentences or even one sentence. Hell, you'll see paragraphs that are one word! The general rule for paragraphs in fiction is simple: when the subject changes, the paragraph changes. If you are writing streams of dialogue, when the speaker changes, the paragraph changes. Two people should not have dialogue in the same paragraph. Do this, and I will fight you!
Number 8: Repetition
This is one of the most common writing quirks I've come across in manuscripts. While crutch words refer to overusing a single word throughout the entire manuscript, repetition refers to using the same word multiple times in close proximity. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a crutch word, it just means you're using it way too much within the same scene.
Now, there are gonna be words you use a lot, like “the,” “a,” “it,” and “and.” I'm not talking about that shit! I'm talking about whether or not you used the word “pleased” twice in the same paragraph, or whether you referenced the staircase three times on the same page. This is another thing you could be unconscious of, so it may be hard to notice at first, which is why it's a good idea to have other people read your manuscript or run your manuscript through ProWritingAid! I have an affiliate link here if you’d like to check it out. Once your repeat words are pointed out, they can be replaced with synonyms or removed entirely.
Number 9: Internet Speak
Sometimes slang, idioms, and even trendy capitalization and punctuation can sneak into our manuscripts. This is an extremely common quirk because sometimes we don't know that what we're writing is colloquial, and it's especially common when it comes to internet speak. On the internet, we use capitalization to indicate emphasis, but in fiction, capitalization means screaming and italics mean emphasis. We don't use italics on the internet, because it usually isn't available.
Another perfect example of internet speak leaking into our writing is the interrobang. Interrobangs are informal. They are not proper punctuation marks, and you'd really only use them in your writing if you were being intentionally irreverent.
Number 10: Homophones
Homophones are words that sound alike, but have different meanings and are spelled differently. Obvious examples are “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” And “to,” “two,” and “too.” These little assholes sneak into manuscripts all the time, especially if you're not well-versed in their definitions. Again, critique partners and ProWritingAid can help point these suckers out. However, if you wanna ensure that this particular quirk doesn't become a recurring problem, you're gonna need to learn their definitions. Understand what these words mean, so you know when to use 'em.
So that's all I've got for you today!
If you’ve noticed some of these writing quirks popping up in your work in progress, now’s the time to act! Use this opportunity to do some learning, get your shit together, and get back to work. By the time you clean up these common writing quirks and start learning how to make your writing better, your manuscript will polish up and beta readers and critique partners will have an easier time reading your work. Stay away from these bad writing habits and thank me later!
What’s your main writing quirk? What steps are you taking to improve your writing skills?
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