Thanks to my hometown library’s vast collection of eBooks, I’ve finally started reading books that were written in the twenty-first century!

They sound strikingly different from the eighteenth century PDFs that I’ve been subsisting on since I moved to Brazil, where books written in English are a rare find. Part of that, I know, is stylistic, but I also believe that the way we write has co-evolved with the way we talk–and not always for the better!

Below are a few habits of speech that I have to combat in my writing. Can you relate?

Everything is little.

Most of the romance languages have a “diminutive” form for their nouns. The French have their –ette; the Spanish have their –ito; the Portuguese have their -inho. Any one of these suffixes can turn a ho-hum noun into a sweet pet name.

Unfortunately, English doesn’t have a diminutive form, so we are stuck with a direct translation: the little noun. Using the word little still manages to convey a sense of dearness, so it’s easy for a friendly person to fall into the habit of calling everything little. 

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Just think of all those Hans Christian Anderson titles: “The Little Mermaid,” “The Little Matchstick Girl,” and my personal favorite, “Little Tiny (or Thumbelina).”

But when that habit transfers into writing, all those littles add up to a BIG problem. They’re redundant, and sometimes they don’t even make sense.

Qualifiers make you seem uncertain.

When we speak, we binge on qualifiers like it seemed, it appeared, as if, maybe, perhaps… The psychology behind these qualifiers is profoundly polite. We use them to acknowledge our own fallibility. We use them to say “this is what I thought, but it might not be true.”

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Writing in first person opens up a world of exceptions to these rules. Qualifiers, for example, can express the timidity or fragility of a narrator. Holden Caulfield is a prime example.

When we’re writing, we become omniscient narrators. Our main objective is to convince readers that what we say IS true, and qualifiers only insinuate themselves between our voice and our readers, weakening the reality we are trying to create.

Conjunctions make your writing choppy.

Speech is a stop and start process, full of sidetracks and interruptions and moments of psychic brilliance when we can finish each other’s sentences. In all of that chaos, conjunctions are our reset button. When we put them at the beginning of a sentence, we are saying, “Okay. Stop. Think about how this relates to the main point. Now, go!”

But in writing, we might prefer a melodious tone, a streamlined thought process. Used sparingly, conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence can create a nice jar. They are attention getters. If, however, we use them as liberally as we do in speech, we quickly recreate the choppiness of speech in our writing.

All your characters sound the same.

Dialogue is supposed to mimic the sound of natural speech, so it’s the one place where we can let our guard down and indulge in all of our habits of speech, right?

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Identical voices are baaaa-ring.

Sadly, no. Dialogue is the place where we must fight hardest to suppress our own speech patterns. Why? Because we need to develop unique speech patterns for our characters.

Personally, my biggest struggle is writing dialogue for children. I almost always wind up with Victorian era prodigy children. Perhaps because of my own struggles with dialogue, I always notice when a writer has distinct voices for each character. It adds another dimension to the story!

What habits of speech pop up in your writing? Do you prefer first person novels or omniscient narrators?

One thought on “When Habits of Speech Attack!

  1. Suggestion for kids’ dialogue….Go visit a daycare for a few days, or babysit a niece or nephew of the age you are writing….I hate it when a kid is written one age and talks/acts another….And really, we do forget the longer we are away from children how they see the world. It pays to reacquaint ourselves — sometimes just to rediscover pure, unmitigated joy…. or to see our co-workers in miniature for what they really are!


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