One Person’s Tic Is Another Person’s Style

Not long ago an author friend of mine mentioned on Facebook that the book he was reading had too much repetition. “Characters frequently curl their fingers into their palms,” he said. “And everything smells like cinnamon.” In the amount of time it took three people to comment, my friend noted that he’d read about the smell of cinnamon twice more. It was not a story about a bakery, I should add.

Um. One really expects these things to be caught in editorial.

Writers do tend to repeat things—often so close together I’m surprised they didn’t catch it themselves. And when it’s an “unusual” word, it becomes very noticeable. By unusual, I don’t mean a word with an uncommon spelling (although that could be a factor) or meaning. Just something that pops a little. Like cinnamon. In a manuscript I worked on last week, it was instantly and epic. Over and over.

The Chicago Tribune quotes Gillian Flynn on this very topic. “I’m trying to wean myself off my very Gen X abuse of the word ‘literally,’” she says. “‘Gone Girl’ contains at least 33 uses of the word, which is 32 more times than any single novel needs. I just have a deep, wrong love of that word; it’s so punchy. I basically (literally) use it instead of an exclamation mark.”

See? It’s not just you.

Sometimes you find repetition in your beats: your characters constantly blush/flush/turn red; they frequently smile or smirk; they glance or look over, huff* or sigh … all the time. This is a problem I see regularly, kids.

Often it’s an adjective or an adverb. Sometimes it’s slang. (Slang words really pop. Also, they can date a novel in a hurry, so be cautious.) And there’s the ever-popular So or Well we find at the beginning of sentences in dialogue.

I call this Favorite Word Syndrome. Carol Saller, the Chicago Manual of Style’s Subversive Copy Editor, says she tries to refrain from pointing out bad writing habits, but it’s my job to do it. Thus you might get a list of Your Favorite Words in my editorial notes. (It’s Sallers’s job, too; she’s just nicer about it than I am.)

But wait, you say, I’m establishing my theme here! It’s symbolism! It’s a rhetorical device! It’s my voice! My style!

No, it’s what we call a writing tic (“a frequent, usually unconscious quirk of behavior or speech,” says my favorite dictionaryor writing, says Your Editor). There’s a difference between establishing a theme and redundancy, and you’d be wise to develop a sense of the difference.

How? In your self-edit process. In your second (third, fifth …) draft. Because you’re not sending me your first draft, right? Right. Get the words down, get the characters, the plot, get it all workin’ in what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.” Redundancy is fine here. But in your next drafts, you’ll be tweaking those sentences, making them prettier … and looking for words you’ve used too often.

There’s software to help you with that too. When I asked around, I learned Scrivener has a feature that will pull out and number frequently used words. And I was directed to WordCounter (free) by my friend Michelle Ule. A brief search turned up Hermetic Systems’s Word Frequency Counter (for Windows users, and not free). There may be others. (And none have been test-driven by me.)

And here’s another quick tip: read your manuscript aloud. You’ve heard this advice before from me as a remedy for a variety of problems, and it really does work. Those writing tics will leap right off the page when you hear them. Having a friend read aloud while you listen is even better.

Bottom line: There are three hundred thousand words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t avail youself of those myriad choices. Establish a theme, sure, but keep an eye out for your favorite (ahem) words and other redundancies. Consider this when you are polishing up your manuscript.

* Although I really hope not.


Tweet: There’s a difference between establishing a theme and redundancy.
Tweet: Favorite Word Syndrome: See? It’s not just you.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. This is something a LOT of writers need to print out and tape to the wall by their desks. Thanks, Jamie!

    And yes, that includes me.

  2. Sacha black says:

    The other one that’s useful is wordle. It creates a word cloud based on the frequency of words in your chapter/essay/novel. I like this because it’s visual – the bigger the word the more times its repeated. I’m such a visual person so this really helps me.

  3. Another tip, if you can’t find someone to read aloud to you, is to read it aloud to yourself and record it. Then play it back (great for long flights or train/bus journeys).

  4. TextStat is a free piece of word-concordance software that I’ve used for consistency checking within proofreading projects for years. The website is It generates word-frequency lists that can be exported to Excel.

    StyleWriter4 Professional is another tool (though it’s not free) for consideration. The ‘Professional’ version includes the Editor’s List. This creates lists of all full words (alphabetically sorted); word frequency; spelling (unknown, questionable, or unusual words); bog (specialist words or words that may detract from readability); wordy (including passive verbs and word phrases); jargon (including abbreviations and jargon words); and pep (unusual or interesting words and names).

  5. Carol Saller says:

    Wonderful post, Jamie!

    Just to clarify what I said in my post about refraining from pointing out tics to writers: I absolutely do edit them – that’s my job, too. I’d like to think that when a writer sees “literally” deleted ten times, they don’t need me to also say in my cover letter “You overuse ‘literally.'” However, as I said in the post, I know better than to count on that!

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      Hi Carol —
      Thank you! I should have made that distinction and will just now. I have so many friends who are “nervous” just commenting on Facebook when I’m around that i emphasized the job aspect of it for myself.
      Thanks so much for stopping by!

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