How to cure 22 annoying and repetitive writing tics

Everyone has writing habits. Some of them are even endearing. But when repeated, they draw attention to themselves, and that’s a distraction from whatever you’re trying to communicate.

Every manuscript I edit has a problem like this. They’re all different. But they all need fixing. They’re often invisible to the writer, even if when they’re obvious to readers.

My job is to show you what tics you have, why they’re a problem, and how to fix them.

An incomplete list of repetition problems

Here are just a few of the things you may be overdoing that are driving readers crazy. None of these are a problem if used sparingly; all are a problem if overused.

  • Exclamation points. The louder you shout, the less we want to listen. Unless you want to sound unhinged, one exclamation point per page is about all you can get away with.
  • Rhetorical questions. It’s okay to ask a question to engage the reader (for example, “But is this really the fundamental problem?”) But if your entire style of argument is based on rhetorical questions, the reader’s response will be “Why are you asking me? I thought you were the expert.”
  • Semicolons. They’re a handy way to combine related sentences, but an affectation when used more than once every paragraph or two. Ask yourself, could I just use a period here?
  • Dashes. Em dashes (“This — to put it mildly — was a big surprise to me.”) are popular because they’re an all-purpose punctuation for pauses longer than a comma. But overuse them, and your text will look like an aerial view of a partly exploded minefield.
  • Parentheticals. When you just have to go off topic for a moment, go ahead, use a parenthetical phrase. If you’re doing it every paragraph, you’re doing it too much. Readers like to go in a straight line, but you’re taking them on frequent detours.
  • Forward and backward references. Sometimes you need to tell people you’ll get to a topic in a later chapter, or remind them that you covered it in an earlier chapter. But if you’re constantly pointing backwards and forwards — more than about once every few pages — your writing most likely has a structural problem.
  • Interrupting yourself. The aside to the reader (“Don’t you just hate that?”) is cute. Doing it more than once or twice per chapter or article isn’t cute, it’s cutesy. Mature writers avoid this.
  • Footnotes. I’m not talking about references to sources. I’m talking about those little asides at the bottom of the page, denoted with an asterisk. They interrupt the flow; avoid any more than one or two per chapter.
  • Long sentences. If your writing has sentences longer than 20 words, you’re creating problems for the reader attempting to keep up. If there are a lot of those sentences, your first editorial task is to break them up.
  • One-word sentences. You want to make something sound bold. Fine. Dandy. Awesome. But as I just demonstrated, it’s a habit that gets old really fast.
  • One-sentence paragraphs. Same deal as the one-word sentences. A set of argumentation paragraphs followed by the one-word paragraph is a great technique (for example, “Sure, but you’ll never get away with it.”) Keep doing it, though, and your technique becomes a distracting affectation.
  • Adverbs. Not every action needs a modifier. If most of your sentences include adverbs, you’ve overdone it.
  • Superlatives. As with exclamation points, the harder you try to make something sound awesome, the more readers will resist.
  • Profanities. The occasional profanity creates emphasis or even shock. Sprinkle them liberally throughout your text and you’re just a potty-mouth. (I’m aware of the irony of posting this here, of course.)
  • Italics or bold. Look at your text from afar. If it’s littered with italics or worse, bold, you’ve created a distraction from meaning. Italics suggest emphasis. You can’t emphasize everything.
  • Passive voice. Lots of sentences make more sense in the passive voice. When you say “The building was torched,” you’re saying you don’t know who torched it. But if the bulk of your sentences are passive, you create distance between events and the reader, who will then decide not to care.
  • Words you’re in love with. Every author has words they love. The more they repeat those words, the more they create distraction — like the book I edited that used “leverage” 74 times, all with murky meanings. Learn the words you overuse, and find alternate ways to say what you want to say.
  • Name dropping. If you met President Obama once, that’s great. If the people you once had a fleeting interaction with get their names on every page, it’s obvious you’re trying to impress us, rather than entertain or inform us.
  • Acronyms. Feel free to invent acronyms help people keep structured ideas straight (like my own rubric for planning a document: ROAM = Readers, Objective, Action, iMpression). But if you make up more than two acronyms per book, you’re taxing the reader’s attention. As for acronyms and initialisms that already exist — CIA, PDF, API, DAO, ROTFLOL — overuse them and you create jargony interruptions. Just look at your text on the page; if the capital letters are everywhere, you’ve overdone it.
  • Analogies and metaphors. Use sparingly, and only when they make a murky concept clearer. And one per concept, please; mixed metaphors distract and confuse.
  • Inline quotes (except in criticism). Unless you’re writing a critique of a piece of writing or a hunk of literary criticism, most of the words should be yours, not quoted verbatim from somewhere else.
  • Personal stories (except in autobiographical material). In nonfiction that’s not a personal narrative, you can still use personal stories. Just don’t insert yourself on every page. Readers want to hear what you believe and what you report, not a dozen random things that happened to you.

The solution is variety

It’s hard to see your own repetition problems, but often, easy for others to see them. To identify your overused writing tics, get a good editor to review your work and point out problems. But if you don’t have a good editor available, just have anyone who’s a critical reader read carefully and tell you what they notice. You’ll learn a lot either way.

The way to avoid these problems is to get good at everything. If you have a writing problem to solve, is the best solution a set of bullet points, a metaphor, a story, a diagram, or a quote from a credible source? If you can master all of those techniques, you’ll be able to use the best one for each problem — and your writing will be consistently refreshing, rather than repetitive.

Writing the same thing again and again is boring, both to readers and to you, the writer. Master multiple techniques. The you’ll be able to get your point across without boring or distracting the people you need to reach.

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  1. “If your writing has sentences longer than 20 words, you’re creating problems for the reader attempting to keep up.”
    More important is the length of the clause. That’s where a semicolon or an “and” or “or” comes in. Even without a semicolon, a good writer can often craft a long sentence that’s easy to follow.
    Even so, long sentences should be the exception.

  2. Here’s a note I shared with colleagues when I worked mostly as an editor and we were discussing profanities:

    When writers use boldface type, italics, underlining, all caps and other typographic devices intended to get attention, I often suggest they need to reconsider their phrasing so that the emphasis lands in the right place without the help of gimmicks. I find nice ways to say that, of course.

    The same principles apply to adjectives and adverbs that are used to qualify rather than clarify. If an adjective is too strong, the noun is probably too weak; likewise for adverbs and verbs. Expand this idea to include the nature of words: Using an obscenity as an intensifier is asking often unrelated words to provide weight and force to an expression that has too little of either.

    If a writer has something of value to say, the writer should be able to say it without swearing. Most of the time, such language takes attention away from the ideas with which it is peppered, and the result is that most readers are left with an impression of bad taste.

    1. Few things annoy me more than bolded text in a book. The text before the colon in bullet points serves as an exception. I’ll defend the occasional profanity, dammit.

  3. Curious: hypertext? I love the rabbit hole tangents. And I love them outside of the flow.

    Repetition: I greatly prefer one word all the time; otherwise I am guessing if X is Y is Z.