Habits in writing are natural. Like any other habit, they serve as a safety net and a place where we can surround ourselves in comfortable things that work for us. In short fiction, these habits might not stand out so much. In long fiction, however, repetitious formulas can jolt a reader from the narrative.
The list below is a few pointers on craft habits that I tend to give writers during the critique process. They’re only guidelines, not rules, and as such are totally meant to be ignored at any given time.
Passages of time
I once critiqued a writer who used “she waited a beat” as a way to express a moment passing, and I hadn’t seen this before, so I liked it. But then she used it again. And again.
There might be times where simply “a moment passed” is completely necessary. Oftentimes, however, it doesn’t need to be done. Instead, it might be possible to actually describe what happens in that moment, whether it’s simply just the characters seething with tension and expressing it physically.
“She looked away. They were silent for a tense moment.”
“She looked away. Her fingers picked at her jeans. The breeze tickled the gathering sweat on the back of her neck.”
Extra steps of action can be used as a tool to slow down the narrative or create a certain mood, but if that’s not the intention, then this might be the end result:
“She walked down the hall and grabbed the doorknob. She unlocked the deadbolt and pushed open the door. She stepped outside.”
This is a lot of unnecessary fat that would be trimmed right off in revision. Not every second of a scene (or between scenes) needs to be captured if there’s not plot or character development, so it’s fine if all that is summed up to simply:
“She went outside.”
I/she/he: felt, saw, heard, tasted, touched, etc. Any time the aforementioned is used, the writer removes the reader from the story one full step. Instead of diving headfirst into the description, this makes the reader test the water with their big toe first.
“I heard the wolf cry.”
“The wolf cried.”
“I tasted cinnamon.”
“Cinnamon burned on my tongue.”
“I touched the cold water.”
“The cold water stung my fingertips.”
In moderation, at the right moments, perhaps to create a certain mood or to communicate a sort of disconnect (such as in dreams or fragmented memories), using these phrases can be effective as well.
Words like “back” and “around” are my greatest dependencies. I use them so frequently that everyone is looking back or turning back or reaching back or handing back. Even worse, sometimes my characters will turn back around.
Word tics stunt a writer in creatively approaching action. I’ve read about agents who loathe the word “look” and said to simply describe what the character is seeing. There are certainly times where these words are absolutely necessary, but they shouldn’t serve as a crutch. (You can read more about word tics in this post.)
Clichés lose their meaning over time, and because of this, they often don’t work well in regards to description.
“He had a chiseled face.”
“Her eyes sparkled like diamonds.”
These are phrases that have been used and abused to the point where readers will glaze over the cliché in question without digesting the words, or readers will read the cliché and think of another story where they last read it. (Or maybe even roll their eyes because diamonds.)
As writers, it’s our job to invent new ways to describe the same things. It’s also important to note that clichés can be reinvented, a twisted new take on old phrases, so to speak, and also that some characters might simply be prone to clichés as part of who they are.
Awesome unusual words
Sometimes we find a super cool word that we love to use and reuse. It simply works in a sentence and conveys precisely what we want to convey. The word might not be all that unusual, but strange enough that it stands out if we use it twice in a chapter. The more we use it, the more it loses its efficacy.
“The blistering cold shower water…”
“The blistering wind…”
Let’s assume the first example sentence just needs to have the word blistering. In that case, it might actually be best to rework the second sentence to let the reader infer the word “blistering”.
“The wind ripped the swell of condensation from her lips. Her eyes burned as she crossed the patches of grass, her stiff fingers buried deep in the pockets of her coat. She knew the sparse green blades would be dead with frost in the morning.”