A long time ago, I read a book* in which a famous author had gotten a raging case of writer's block because a graduate student had run his writing through a computer program and discovered that the word he used most often was "greasy." Suddenly, the author couldn't write anymore. Every time he tried to put something down, he kept thinking about "greasy, greasy, greasy."
That just happened to me.
Not the computer part, or the famous part, or even actually the writer's block part, but in the course of my latest revision of The Book, I discovered (with the help of the excellent Agent Ted), that my characters are sighing all over the place. Sigh, sigh, sigh. He sighed, she sighed, the dog sighed. (I wish I were making that up. The dog sighed. Sigh.)
It turns out that, whenever I need a character to pause before he or she says something, I put in a sigh. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it was happening way too often. If you started looking for it in the manuscript--which I did**--you would start to feel like you were in a 19th century comedy of manners, with people sighing and collapsing on couches, their hands pressed to their foreheads. (NOTE: no one actually collapsed on a couch, but after a while it started to feel that way.) In the most recent version, I ended up taking out most of the sighing.***
All writers have these tics, I think. I've read exactly two books by Laurell K. Hamilton, but I can tell you that one of hers is the phrase "showed off his ____ to wonderful affect."**** Stephen King, who has put so many words together in his career that I'm surprised there are still new combinations of words left, likes "ayuh" a word that indicates that the character who says it is from the corner of Maine where he grew up.
These tics are, I think, a function of an author's style. I'm sure there are things, even in the most dry author's style, that could be identified and described as a part of what makes an author an author. It's what agents like to refer to as "voice." A tic, then, is just a single word or phrase that used to be a marker of style, but has been used too often and starts to rub the reader the wrong way. There's nothing wrong with "sighed" or even "showed off his___to wonderful affect." But the fourth or fifth the reader sees it they start to think "doesn't this writer have any other tricks up her sleeve? Can't she describe this in another way?"
That's why tics are a problem--not because they're bad, but because they poke holes in the illusion for the reader. So my characters aren't walking around sighing all the damn time, any more, and I put "sighed" on my list of things to check on when I get to later drafts of future books.***** I'm sure that next time there, I'll find out that they're pursing their lips or something equally annoying. There's always something else.
* I wish I could remember the name--it was funny and involved a bunch of academics on the conference circuit. At the time, I was a fledgling academic myself, so it seemed really on-point. I should have known, I suppose, that the fact that I found that book so awesome was a sure sign that I wouldn't be happy in academics. If I'd loved my life, I would have been insulted by someone poking such accurate fun at it. Even now, when people tell lawyer jokes, I get annoyed. Seriously, on what planet is it polite for someone to insult your profession to your face? I don't go in to my doctor and tell her doctor jokes...but perhaps that's because I'm afraid if I did, she would stab me with something painful. "Okay, Jay, time for your tenus shot!" "But, I just--" "You don't want to die of lockjaw, now, do you?" "Um..." ::stab::
Okay, this note has gotten a little out of control. Sorry.
**I heart you, Find/Replace! Never leave me!
***Now, if I sell this book, you my 8 intrepid blog readers, are going to look through it, and notice all the sighing I left in and laugh and laugh.
****The blank isn't for something dirty; she changes what's shown. It's usually some guy's chest or arms, though.
*****Yes, I have a list. Want to make something of it? I know, I'm a total writing nerd. It's part of my charm.