Catching your own idiosyncrasies can feel like playing whack-a-mole: As soon as you stop making your character sigh every other paragraph, you learn you are addicted to ellipses. Then you set out on a mission to rid your dialogue tags of adverbs, and you start over-relying on a few of your favorite verbs.
Because writing is such a solitary activity, it’s very easy to get set in your ways. And if you keep your head down and continue to do things the way you’ve always done them, you might miss opportunities for growth.
But, as they say, you have to create your own opportunities. Here are a few ways you can start to identify your weird writing quirks and hopefully fix them for good:
1. Read your writing aloud. The best way to become attuned to your own style of writing (and your own idiosyncrasies) is to read your writing aloud. It’s easier to hear your third use of “plethora” or your fourth “ironically” in a piece than it is to see these repeats on the page.
Want to take this exercise one step further? Record yourself reading your writing. While it can be painful to listen to the sound of your own voice, it can help you identify repetitive patterns in your syntax and word choice. It wasn’t until I started podcasting that I realized how often I used the word “critical.”
Listening to yourself read your writing also helps you become attuned to your unique voice and cadence. This isn’t necessarily useful if you’re trying to change the way you write, but I think it can help you “lean in” and further develop your voice as a writer.
2. Circle the first word in each sentence. Sometimes the first word tells you a lot about how you might be overusing a specific sentence structure or even a specific word. (Transcribing my podcast episodes helped me realize that I really like to start sentences with “and,” “but,” and “so.”)
Good writers aim for sentence structure variety, so you may even want to try diagramming a few of your sentences to spot any repetitive patterns.
3. Run your writing through Pro Writing Aid. Not feel old school enough to start diagramming sentences? This tool is the next best thing. An author friend of mine recommended Pro Writing Aid, and it’s so neat that I might start using it on a regular basis.
I was looking for a digital tool that would highlight overused words and phrases, but Pro Writing Aid does so much more than that. It will pinpoint any “sticky sentences” in your prose that could slow a reader down. It will highlight clichés. It will even tell you how “readable” your piece is.
I think Pro Writing Aid could easily become a time-wasting rabbit hole, but it’s fantastic if you’ve been through a piece too many times and need a robot to point out your flagrant abuse of gerunds.
4. Write an entire blog post or scene without your favorite punctuation. Every writer has a favorite punctuation mark. Mine used to be the semicolon; now it’s the em dash.
While my addiction to em dashes isn’t necessarily problematic, overusing them can come across as repetitive or cause them to lose their effectiveness. In the same way, too many exclamation points can desensitize readers to your excitement, while too many commas can lose the reader. A really bad habit can be distracting or make you seem unprofessional.
One way to find out if you have a problem is to cut yourself off completely. Set yourself the challenge of writing an entire blog post or scene (500 to 1,500 words) without your favorite punctuation mark. If this is a struggle, you might need to expand your repertoire of punctuation. Ellipses addicts, try the em dash. Semicolon abusers, meet the period. Comma lovers, check out the Hemingway App to break up with complex sentences.
5. Pay a professional editor or writing coach. Digital editing tools are fun, but there’s no substitute for paying a professional to read your writing and provide feedback. You might be a phenomenal self-editor, but you’ll never be as sharp as a second set of eyes.
If you just want to work on catching idiosyncrasies in word choice, grammar, and punctuation, a professional copyeditor or proofreader will do just fine. If you need help recognizing patterns in your work as a whole, I’d suggest working with a writing coach or a developmental editor. These pros will help you see that your characters are always looking up into a bleak stormy sky or biting their lower lip. They can even help you catch overused tropes and character clichés.
Every editor I’ve ever worked with has helped me identify little quirks I need to work to correct. (Recently, I had an editor point out that I overuse italics to emphasize my points.) You never know what narrative crutches you might be relying on until you get your work checked out by a pro.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. We’re all constantly learning and growing. But if we want to improve our craft, we have to seek out constructive feedback and do everything in our power to take our writing to the next level.
What are your most offensive writing quirks? How did you catch them? Let me know in the comments below.
Photo by Kinga Cichewicz