Diagnosing Writerly Quirks

All writers have quirks, and discovering them is one of my favorite things about being an editor.  Sometimes they’re evident from the first page, other times it can take the better part of the manuscript for them to emerge. In this way, being an editor is like playing doctor (without the blood, urgency, or pager). I get to sit, read, pay quiet attention, and then give my diagnosis and prescription for a solution. Here are the top five quirks I see most as an editor. Which is your Achilles’ heel?

Top 5 Endearing Author Quirks

5. Paralysis of the parenthetical. If everything is an aside, then what are you really saying? He walked down the street to catch his bus (he took a different route than he normally did, the wind was blowing, and he had become terrified of the homeless clown who haunted the stop at 54th Street).

4. Overqualified qualification syndrome. This is particularly common among lawyers and academics, and more of an issue when it comes to non-fiction. (After all, with fiction you could always argue it's the character's quirk… shoot, look at me overusing my parentheticals!) Sometimes it's okay to just say what you need to say, instead of beginning with phrases like "As I understand it," or even "I think." If you're the author, it's understood that everything you write is what you think.  As I understand it, traffic in Seattle is terrible, though my perspective is, of course, narrowly defined.

3. Unhealthy attachment to particular phrases. This happens all the time! What that phrase is varies by author. But authors often have a proclivity for a certain order of words together, and will put them together again and again. His dimples deepened when he smiled. She nodded vigorously, her dimples deepening.

2. Tendonitis of the metaphor. Metaphors are lovely in moderation, but just as one is sure to develop tennis elbow if they hit too many forehands in a row, if used too frequently, metaphors become weak and broken and lose all their power. Her words were a slap in the face, a thundering rain on what had been a glorious, picture-perfect day.

1. Repetitionitis. This is the most common quirk by far, because when you have a great point to make, it’s so important to make sure your reader gets it! Hence, the inclination to make that point again and again. Readers will get it but they also may resent you for telling them a dozen times. When we talk too much, the evidence shows that people do not listen… Then, ten pages later: That's why evidence routinely shows that when we talk too much, people tune us out.  

I have quirks, too, of course. I use em-dashes way, way too often. I overuse commas. And I know all of my fellow Girl Fridays' quirks. I can tell who's written something even if her/his name isn't attached. A quirk is like a trademark. In our personal life, these quirks are why we need honest friends who will tell us that we eat with our mouths open or have an annoying way of pressing on and off the gas pedal when we drive. In our writing life, these quirks are why we need editors.