Bad Phrases in Writing 4: Personal Tics

It’s been quite some time since I did a Bad Phrases in Writing post. So let’s talk about some.

Specifically, let’s talk about you. Grab something you’ve written that’s around 750–1,000 words. Raw text, not edited. Lay it out in two-column format, print it out, and hand it to a friend who is good at catching stuff. Ask them to do this:

“Circle and connect all the stuff I keep repeating that makes me look like I have no vocabulary or is a consistent construction.”

You’re going to get back something that might look like this (taken from Samuel L. Ipsum, as a random sample[1]):

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 12.57.00 PM

The image above also illustrates why making this as a two-column printout is useful: it condenses the cluster and usually makes it a bit easier to see.

When I’m editing something, I do this as part of an on-paper pass—which is part of why I prefer to do much of this on paper, since I can see the whole word cloud before I’m changing the content. Much of what I circle are overused adjectives or textual pauses (like “, however,” or “, though,”), because these personal tics are how we fill in space to speak while thinking.

Use the results of this exercise to build a list of words and phrases to search for as you’re finishing up a project. Keep tabs on how frequently you’re using an odd words or notable construct over time, because personal tics can shift around over time.

I don’t know exactly what this sort of diagram is called—I’ve heard “word bomb,” “word cluster,” and “word spider,” but Googling all of those directs me only to mindmapping diagrams and not editing techniques.

This post was inspired by seeing a bunch of tics lately, including two adjectives overused by multiple writers: “near-constant” and “massive.” When it comes to “near-constant,” you can cut the “near-” part. If a place has been at war for decades, that’s considered “constant warfare” even if the weather forces war to cool down during the monsoon season. And there are quite a number of synonyms for massive.

If you’re wondering about mine, I put “that” in sentences sometimes when unnecessary, and I get my future tense circled often. There are others, which tend to be project-oriented rather than totally systemic to my writing. I get “starts with a conjunction multiple times in a row” circled as well.

– Ryan

[1] Yes, the Samuel L. Jackson passage is intentional. It’s also serves as a good illustration.


2 Responses to Bad Phrases in Writing 4: Personal Tics

  1. The Fierce says:

    One of the ways I cut down on this is to do a cloud of a large section of my test, usually using something like http://wordle.net/ and then review what I re-use too often. Some of them, like names, I can generally discard, but then I can do a search for my overused words and make sure they’re the best word to place in that context.

  2. Monte Lin says:

    My screenwriting mentor calls it a “justerfuck” since “just” tends to be a common word he sees in a cluster.