Shoes and hair

Hair and shoes.

I am told that all writers have ‘tics’. These, apparently, are mine.

hair-wreath-187486_1280As tics go, they’re disappointing. They suggest shallowness, vanity and a focus on the superficial.  Where’s the profundity in shoes and hair? What deep meaning in a pair of kitten heels? (Note to self – check personal grooming, this could be a warning from my unconscious, going where my best friends fear to tread.) Perhaps it’s best not to psycho-analyse too much.

Every one who writes has writing tics – words, phrases or descriptive traits and character gestures which are repeated, without realising it, again and again. You don’t have to be a professional or full-time writer to qualify for some.  Readers of this blog piece will have writing tics

Some of the most common are

  • repeated words – ‘just’ is a good candidate for the most over used, but ‘also’, ‘always’, ‘very’ and ‘even’ feature frequently.  Adverbs – quickly, loudly – can be over-used. Why write ‘spoke very softly’ and not ‘whispered’?
  • Repeated phrases e.g. ‘not the least of which’, ‘time will tell’.
  • Characters repeating the same gestures – I have a tendency to make my characters ‘set her/his jaw’ apparently, but other typical repeated gestures (not mine) include eye narrowing, lip curling and shrugging.
  • Characters repeating the same actions – in ‘On the Frontier’ I often send characters off to get their shoes (in part because my young heroes would go about bare-footed for much of the time – well, that’s my excuse).  Mary Wesley might win the prize for the strangest tic of this type, my editor tells me; in one novel her characters all open oysters and drink fresh orange juice.
  • Repetitive descriptions – I describe characters’ hair. I was astonished when this was pointed out to me in an early draft of ‘The Village’ the hair of  almost every character was described.
Of course some characters’ tics define and distinguish them. In ‘The Village’ Molly regularly uses proverbs or common sayings, but gets them confused every time.  Winnie is fond of the phrase ‘My giddy aunt’, a phrase I remember older people using from my youth ( but now appearing in Dr Who as part of the vocabulary of the ‘Missy’ character, maybe the writers of that series remember it from their youth too ).
statue-78608_640Dickens used character tics to good effect. His novels have huge casts of characters, many of whom are made more memorable by their tics. Think of Uriah Heep, Mr Jaggers, Jeremiah Flintwitch or the entire Squeers family.  Dickens’ stories were read in serial form, once a month, so the character tics were an aid to memory for the readers. They also add to the quality of hyper-reality in so many of his stories.
Similarly, in the days when stories were told aloud, not written down, tics or tags were necessary. So Achilles is ‘fleet footed’, Beowulf is ‘sea-wise’. These made remembering the long poems easier for the story-teller as well as providing a quick sketch for the listener, who would then identify the characters by their attributes.  The personal prop performs the same function, Diana’s bow, Wotan’s staff, Heracles’ club. But these are conscious and deliberate.
Writing tics aren’t either. When you next write a letter, a long e-mail or text, or a story or report ( it doesn’t have to be fiction ) take a look and see if you can see your writing tics.
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