Can you break bad writing habits?


I suppose one of the things that happens to a lot of us as we write for a period of years is that we develop our own unique short hand methods of doing certain  things.  There is nothing wrong with those shortcuts if they add clarity to our writing.  But they can form real impediments if they don’t.

When I first started writing, I was a member of the ING Dynasty, as my writing coach called it.

The ING Dynasty is that approach to writing that uses leading “ing” words over and over again ad nauseum.

Something like this:

Moving into the living room, he saw a shattered glass on the flow.  Bending down to pick it up, he felt a sharp pain in his back.  Massaging his back, he remembered an old football injury.

Blah, blah.  

I think I did that because somewhere, maybe in junior or senior English in high school, a teacher told me that was the way to do it. The truth is that the passage is stronger with  short, punchy action verbs.

When he saw the broken glass on the living room floor, he bent down to pick it up. A sharp pain shot through his back, a reminder of the time a defensive back speared him with his helmet.

Nowadays, I avoid the ING Dynasty like the plague.

Another thing that drives me crazy is walk and all the possibilities it creates.

 He walked to the door, walked outside,walked back in, walked around the house.

Okay, I know most of you wouldn’t walk that much, but you get my point. I am not a fan of curing this sort of thing with ten-cent words like ambled, perambulated, etc. That always sounds too high-falutin’ to me.  But there are other ways to get around the repetitiveness.  It’s a matter of re-imagining the scene.

He went outside and sat down on a bench on the edge of the woods.  His mind was numb, not from lack of sleep but from the endless possibilities before him.  When he entered the house again, he felt the air bear down on him.

And so forth and so on, as my daughter’s high school band director used to say.

And there is the old showing versus telling issue. There was a time when I might have written,  “He was short and bald.”  Now, I would probably play with it.

The woman behind the counter caught a glimpse of reflected light.  She stood on her tiptoes and leaned across the wooden divider before she realized the beam came from the bare skin of John’s head.

My point is that we all fall into habits that make it easier for us to get through a paragraph, to wind up a scene. If we aren’t careful, we start turning out what we call in the law Friday afternoon briefs, the assignments you rush through at the last minute when your mind is elsewhere.

Can you break bad writing habits?  Of course. But you have to be willing to take a critical look at your work product.

And you have to be willing to improve.  If you don’t want to get better, just keep doing what you’ve always done.

(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author legal thrillers.  Please click here to visit his Amazon Author Page.)


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