Stop writing so badly, start a Tic List

I don’t care who you are: you’ve picked up bad writing habits. Perhaps you rely too much on certain words or short expressions. Perhaps you fail to attend to the transition betweens sentences or paragraphs. Perhaps you boringly adhere to a monotonous sentence length. Perhaps you use the passive too often. The first step toward practicing your writing more deliberately will be to bring these tics in your own style to consciousness and purposefully to avoid or compensate for them as you write. And the best way to do this is to start what I call a tic list.

A tic list is a concisely stated set of personal guidelines that you put somewhere prominently close to your writing space, look at frequently, and refer to whenever you edit your own prose.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of my tic list (it’s quite long at this point, and growing, as it should be):

  1. Avoid Em-dash asides.
  2. Avoid the expressions “for example,” “let us say,” “for instance,” and “not… but rather.”
  3. Avoid lazy evaluative abstractions: good, great, bad, awful. Instead describe the features of a thing which prompt these evaluations in such a way that they become clear without needing to be stated.
  4. Avoid nested prepositions more than two levels deep.

These four items from my tic list show examples of what are — in my experience — the most prominent types of tic: obstructive digressions, over-used words and phrases, lazy generalities, and syntactic tangles. Most of my many other tics are variations on these basic failings.

How do I use the tic list? Simple: as I write I try to bear it in mind, and when I’ve finished writing something I go through it correcting each instance of the tic I find.

Yes, this takes a lot of work. That’s why it’s so effective. Finding and correcting my tics pains me so much that they very quickly disappear from my writing.

You will notice something about the list: not everything on it is unequivocally bad. The words “for example,” for example, can fit unobtrusively into the flow of good prose. But when I added them to my tic list they had become a weed in my style.

(In my style. I can’t stress this enough. A tic list should correspond to the particular weaknesses of your own style. That’s why I’m not just sharing my whole list with you — an objective, absolute tic list would be an illegitimate shortcut, likely unhelpful for you.)

Another feature of my tic list is that I weight later items more heavily than early items. You will notice an em-dash aside in this post, in the fifth paragraph. It didn’t slip past my attention. I considered it and chose to keep it. When I first added em-dash asides to my tic list, however, I refused to grant myself a single exception until they ceased to be a pattern that I naturally resorted to. That’s the point of the tic list: it’s a form of de-programming.

How to figure out your tics

When I tell people about the tic list, often the first question they have is “but how do I figure out what my tics are?” I think there are two ways.

(1) Alienate yourself from your own prose.
Writers will be familiar with this sequence: in the first flush of composition, they love what they’ve written; as they begin to edit, they begin to hate it; when they come back to it weeks or months later, they are pleasantly surprised, but chagrined at the obvious small but glaring problems.

In the first place, you should pretty much ignore these feelings as a way of evaluating your writing. They’re irrelevant. Most writers, amazingly good or abysmally bad, experience the same sequence. Instead you should evaluate your writing by measuring it in concrete ways against your models. More on that in later posts.

But in the second place, this sequence reveals the ideal time to study your own writing for tics: after you’ve become emotionally distanced from it. So I recommend that you begin your tic list this way: get five or six longish things you’ve written a month or more ago, read them slowly and circle anything that annoys you. Then go back to each thing you circled and study it until you can see what’s wrong with it. Likely you’ll begin to detect patterns in the annoying parts of what you’ve written. Once you’ve found a concise way to describe this pattern, you have an item for you tic list.

Other ways to alienate yourself from your own writing:

  1. Read it aloud.
  2. Ask someone else to read it aloud to you.
  3. Format it differently and look at it in a different way: for example, print it out, or port it to an e-reader, or change the font, or read it with white text on black background.
  4. read it out of sequence: last sentence first, then second-to-last sentence, etc.

But the best alienation technique is and always will be time. Study your own old writing, no matter how painful it is.

(1) Consult other people.
You can’t see everything that’s bad about your own writing. Sometimes a tic goes so deep that you actually think of it as an excellence of your writing. Actually, often you think of your tics as excellences. It will take the disapproval of other people for you to notice them.

But other people are often really bad at explaining what the tic is that annoys them. So you should pay attention to what they dislike, but not to why they say they dislike it.

Here’s one way to do that: get a few readers you trust to read something you’ve written, and ask them to honestly circle the parts that annoy them (just like you did when reading your own older writing). You’ll be surprised how often a variety of different readers will find the same things annoying. Tell them to circle anything that confused them, that distracted them, or that seemed ugly.

Perhaps even better than the reader-test is undergoing the blood-curdling but beneficial experience of real editing by competent editors. Reviewers whose work is accepted by the online magazine I help to edit — Open Letters Monthly — receive in depth and ruthless editorial revision-requests before we publish them. Many people — and I myself, since editors are not exempt — describe this process as transformative. Numerous items on my tic list have come from the observations of my fellow editors. I can’t recommend writing for publication enough for this reason, even if you don’t have the deep desire for publication that I do.

The tic list is the most consistently beneficial aspect of my deliberative practice as a writer. Some of the things I’ll describe in later posts are more exciting or inspiring and will perhaps more drastically change the effect of your writing, but nothing will provide improvement as steady and satisfying. Among other things, the tic list provides a definite way of measuring the improvement of your prose: you can look at a piece from last month and compare it to a piece from last year, and you’ll see how many of the tics that annoy you in the earlier piece have disappeared from the more recent one.