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Bad Writing Habits and How to Break Them

My Short Pencil Collection, by Hugo Cardoso at Flickr
This is somewhat embarrassing to admit in public, but we’re all friends here at WU, so I’ll go ahead: not long ago, one of my books was being made into an audiobook, and during the recording process the producer pointed out how many times my characters nodded in agreement to something. I don’t have an exact count, but it was a kind of horrifying amount of nodding I had going on. Like, to the point where you would have thought I was confused as to whether I was writing about a bunch of bobble-head dolls or human beings. And this was after the book had been gone over by me multiple times, beta read, and read by my editor. Eeek.

I took another look, and probably 90 percent of those nods were entirely unnecessary, too. I cut them— thank goodness the book hadn’t been published yet— but it was an eye-opening experience, and one that reminded me that even 20+ books into my career as an author, I still have bad writing habits that I need to watch out for.

So what to do? The first line of defense against bad habits, of course, is to be aware of them. Nodding isn’t the only word I’ve been known to over-use. I’ve also caught myself using the word ‘blink’ so often to express mild surprise that you start to imagine my characters seeing in strobe-lighting effect. I’m much more aware of those things now— while writing my most recent books, I generally caught myself and hit the backspace key the second my index finger reached to type that first N in nod. But I know there are other repeat words and phrases that are easier to overlook, too. My awesome computer-programmer husband actually wrote me a computer program that goes through and identifies all my most frequently used phrases— in groups of 2 words, all the way up to groups of 5 words. But for those not married to my husband I know I’ve heard of similar software that does the same thing— if anyone knows the exact programs, feel free to leave the name in the comments.

Bad habits don’t have to apply just to the writing, either, they can also be about how we write. I’m generally really disciplined (read: mildly compulsive) about staying on track and making my word-count goals each day happen. But I still have a horrible habit of whenever I’m paused for a second, thinking about the exact word or phrase or sentence I want to use, instead of just sitting and thinking about it, I’ll click over and check my e-mail first. I’ve found that either disconnecting my computer from the internet or working somewhere internet isn’t even available to me is helpful in breaking that habit— or working on it, anyway.

Sometimes bad habits have to do with our attitudes: sitting down to write, only to think about every rejection letter you’ve ever gotten, for example. Or every bad review your books have ever received. I used to do that, but then I completely broke the habit of self-doubt, and . . . ha, no, not really. Still working on that one. Which, really, is all we can expect ourselves to do: to work on the habits we know we need to improve.

No writer is perfect, just like no book is 100 percent perfect or ever can be. I’m sure when I finish a draft of my current work-in-progress, I’ll find something else that my characters are apparently addicted to doing, even if it’s not obsessive nodding. So I’ll fix it, and that will be one fewer bad habit that I’ll carry over with me to the next book I write. Because it does get easier. After 20+ books, I do know that much: we may never achieve writerly perfection, but every book— every sentence, even— that we write teaches us just a little bit more about ourselves and our craft. We’re works-in-progress, too, and that’s okay— in fact, it’s exactly the way it should be.

What about you? Do you have any bad writing habits? Or any tips on how you go about breaking them?

About Anna Elliott [1]

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.