Unnecessary Writerly Ticks

The best part about hiring a coypeditor besides being provided with peace of mind that I’ve done all I can to make my manuscript as design-ready as possible, is the fact that I learned about a few nervous writerly ticks that bogged down my prose. I’m no pro at explaining this, but for those of you out there who are interested, I will try to clarify what I learned.First, the absolute-phrase dialogue tag modifier: If you take a verb and add an -ing, the action becomes ongoing, or, absolute. If you do this and also put it immediately following a dialogue tag, it implies that the absolute action continues during and after the dialogue is spoken by the character. Here is one example from my manuscript of an absolute-phrase dialogue tag modifier:

“Do you want to climb it?” I asked, nudging him a step toward the guard fence.

“I asked” is the dialogue tag and the absolute-phrase modifier is “nudging.” While it’s not technically impossible to say “Do you want to climb it?” while nudging someone a step toward a guard fence, as my copyeditor explained to me, it unnecessarily combines actions and therefore risks that the reader will blur or miss them. If you avoid the -ing, you can separate the actions and paint a more physical, active image in the mind’s eye of the reader. Furthermore, as my copyeditor persuaded me, the reader will then read the two actions and automatically intuit them as occurring at the same time. He suggested I revise the sentence this way:

“Do you want to climb it?” I asked and nudged him a step toward the guard fence.

It’s a simple change, but according to the edits I received, I modified my dialogue tags with an absolute-phrase 80-90% of the time; in other words, after most lines of dialogue in the entire manuscript. I think it’s the flash fiction writer in me, which demands fewer words and more efficiency, that allowed this writerly tick to pervade my work so thoroughly. My copyeditor argues otherwise, though–he thinks I picked it up subconsciously through what I read. Apparently a lot of folks have this tick. I’m glad I won’t be one of them anymore!

As an aside, of course there are exceptions to every rule and sometimes those exceptions are technical, other times they are stylistic. For example, I kept some of my absolute-phrase modifiers in for style or pacing depending on the moment in the story. Likewise, my copyeditor did not suggest that I remove the absolute-phrase modifier from this dialogue tag, because the action quite literally is going on while the words are spoken and it quite literally continues afterwards:

One kid cried his first night in country. So young he still had pimples. He slept holding an undershirt like a snot rag to his face. “Stupid stupid stupid stupid,” he said, blubbering away in his bunk.

The second unnecessary writerly tick also had to do with dialogue tags, only this time it was dialogue tags that stood alone and completed a sentence. Apparently, since Hemingway, no one uses “said Bradley,” anymore and it is considered arcane. Instead, I must always and forever use “Bradley said.” In other words–character, then simple attribution. As my copyeditor told me, if I don’t fix it, “This will get you in serious hot water with any reviewer who looks beyond your subject matter and into your prose.” Phew. Glad I asked. And even happier it’s fixed now…in several hundred places throughout my manuscript.

The third and final common tick I had in my manscript was the non-referential “it.” This, I know, is a facet of flash fiction writing because so much of the story in flash fiction is what is not said, rather, implied. But my copyeditor did bring up a good point. If and when it is possible to be specific about what “it” refers to, a writer should do so. Here are the first three sentences of “While the Rest of America’s at the Mall”:

It’s not quite sniper fire but it isn’t random, either. The hajis so much as hear me think, and they start gunning the water from their position on the bridge, bullets raining like a Carolina downpour. It’s dark enough that they can’t see me, so I toss a balled up T-shirt far as I can toward enemy fire to mess with their thinking.

The reader may wonder: What’s not quite sniper fire? What isn’t random, either? Furthermore, what’s dark enough? In the end, I decided to leave the first two–I believe you can get away with that in flash–but I changed the third non-referential “it” so the sentence reads: They can’t see me in the dark, so I toss a…etc. That change is actually fewer words than they original and become more specific with revision. I approve!

My copyeditor and I are putting the stories together in their final, new order and I will email the PDF to the publisher Monday morning, followed by a printed hardcopy sent certified mail to Loyola University Maryland. Next steps: layout and design! I’m so pleased that the publisher will be asking for my input and feedback during this process as the department readies the pages of the book and creates a few sample covers for discussion. If it’s at all possible, I will post options on this blog and ask for votes from my readers.

Showing 3 comments
  • bikegirl

    Great post, Katey! I'm going to look at my own writing to see if I have any of these tics. I imagine I have a few others, too.

  • Lynn Lovegreen

    Very cool! Now I need to go look at my dialogue tags.

  • Rocky

    Very cool post, said Rocky.

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