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Posts Tagged ‘Harry Turtledove’

I like to say that the secret of writing well is an understanding of structure. This emphasis on structure probably explains why I am quick to pick up on any writer’s tics – the favorite phrases that they overuse, and fall back on for an easy means of expression.

Some tics belong to a group of writers. For instance, in the 1990s, every second fantasy and science fiction writer seemed to use the sentence “He shook his head to clear it.” The subject of the sentence was never “she;” even now, you can find over 7800 instances of the sentences on Google with “he” and none with “she.” It was used to express astonishment, or, sometimes, a change of direction in thought. Never mind that nobody actually shakes their head in either circumstance. For a while, the phrase was so common that for a while you could make an accurate guess about who had been reading whom.

However, more often, tics belong to individual writers. George Orwell, for example, was fond of lists of all sorts. More recently, Harry Turtledove, the alternate history writer whom I read when I want some intelligent light fiction, has shown such an extreme fondness for having characters “Am I wrong?” or some variation that I find myself keeping count as I read. Turtledove is an extremely prolific writer, so some tics are almost inevitable in his work, but the question always seems unidiomatic to me, especially when asked by a Nazi officer or a Roman governor, perhaps because – to my ear – it would sound best when spoken in a New York Jewish accent.

For me, the worst sense of this awareness of tics is that I am always painfully aware of my own. When I speak, I am painfully aware of every “um” that I utter. When I write, the situation is far worse. I have managed to retire a habit I had a decade ago of starting a sentence with “sure” to give informal emphasis, but other habits have crept in to replace it, such as my fondness for “chances are.” I also have an unusual fondness for the dash, because I tend naturally to a digressive style with quick asides and changes of thought.

But my most obvious tic is a fondness for conjunctions. Because I think hard about structure, I want to make sure that how one sentence or paragraph connects to another is obvious to anyone who reads my writing. The result is that my first drafts are peppered with “however”s, “but”s, and “similarly”s. Give me the faintest hint of a list, I’ll trot out “to begin with” or “firstly.” I’m not sure where the habit began, but I suspect that it’s legacy of teaching composition to hundreds of first year university and college students.

Such tics are, in fact, a form of cliche. Especially when writing quickly or in a first draft, almost everybody will reach for their own set of cliches because they are more concerned with a rough expression of their thoughts than precision or choosing their words carefully. And nothing’s wrong with that. Even Shakespeare had his share of tics, including a fondness for “the primrose path.”

But if you’re a writer with any interesting in expressing yourself well, you will become aware of your own tics, and try to vary or severely limit them. For instance, my tendency to conjunctions is so strong that one of the first things I do when revising is to see where the connection between thoughts is so obvious that I can leave out the conjunction. Usually, I can delete forty percent of them or more. The same is true of my dashes to an even greater degree.

I’m also on watch for new tics creeping in. Otherwise, I risk becoming a parody of myself, a set of mannerisms rather than someone expressing any serious or entertaining thought.

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