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This Writing Life: Bad Habits

17 March, 2014

One of the reasons it’s been so quiet on the blog lately is that I’ve been putting all my time into editing a novel, ready for self-publication. Now, this is a novel I wrote several years ago, which had a complete overhaul a couple of years after that, and is now ready for just a few final tweaks before formatting (more on this in another post). During the course of reading the story again, I discovered a few things: I still really love the characters, I left a few teasers open for a sequel should I ever want to write one – and I have a few stylistic bad habits.

Namely, in this particular novel – ‘Sanguine’ – I had a real problem with overusing the word ‘that’. Not only did it crop up in places it really didn’t need to be, but its use in some sentences made their construction far more complicated then necessary. Removing ‘that’ and fiddling around with a few other words made some paragraphs so much simpler, cleaner and easier to understand, I genuinely wonder why I didn’t write them that way in the first place!

I’ve largely moved on from overuse of ‘that’ in more recent novels, but there are always new bad habits to take its place. Instead, I know that in my last novel, I went a bit mad with em-dashes (something I’d virtually not used at all in ‘Sanguine’); I’ve also been known to use ‘seemed’ far too often, when removing it altogether made sentences much stronger. My bad writing habits have, essentially, changed over time, and I’m sure will continue to do so.

Of course, I’m not saying every single use of ‘that’ or ‘seemed’ should be stripped from my work – that would be ridiculous. I’m not even sure any but the most attentive reader would notice these little stylistic quirks, either. However, as writers, we should always strive to improve our work and our craft – seeking out overused words and overcomplicated sentences is just one part of that, and can be the difference between your prose being just readable and really singing.

The key is being able to recognise when a word or phrase is being used simply because you couldn’t think of anything else, or it was just filling space whilst you thought of something more important to say – and when it’s genuinely serving a purpose. Not an easy thing to accomplish, of course! So far, the most effective means I’ve found of spotting my bad habits is leaving any finished work, sometimes for weeks, or even months or years, before I edit it. Having written something new in the meantime suddenly makes all my past quirks stand out – and not in a good way!


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