How Droll: Pet Peeves

I’m usually a pretty patient reader, willing to give a writer the benefit of the doubt, but occasionally I come across a writer whose verbal mannerisms take me out of the story repeatedly, and then I stop being so patient.   Recently I picked up a novel by a much-loved author (loved by other people; I hadn’t read this person before) and found myself grinding my teeth when the author wrote — for the seventh time in sixty-odd pages — that one character looked at another with a “droll expression.”  I’m not entirely sure how you can look at another person droll-ly but even supposing you can, would you really do it seven times in the first three chapters?

Years ago I read a series of books by an author whose main character said everything “bleakly.”  For something like twelve books.  I was younger then, and I read them all anyway.  What sticks in my mind, though, is not the brilliance of the plot or the prose but the word “bleak.”

I’m trying to figure out why these kinds of verbal repetitions annoy me so much that they spoil my experience of reading: in both the “bleak” and the “droll” cases, the plot and characters are otherwise entertaining enough.  I suppose one reason I get annoyed is that such repetitions seem a bit lazy.  They don’t tell me anything.   What does it mean to have one character look at another in a droll or humorous way?  I’m not sure I can picture that.  Same with speaking in a “bleak” way.  Does that mean the character’s voice is empty of emotion?  Or that the character is depressed?

At any rate, this annoyance spurred me to go through my current WIP with a ruthless eye toward meaningless repetitions.  I have a lot of characters who clear their throats before speaking — although not anymore!  If my characters need to hesitate, they can pick up a knickknack, take a sip of water, or lean back in their chair.   I also discovered a lot of clenching fists.  Surely I can find other ways to express frustration.  Maybe I should actually have someone punch someone else.  And there’s another one: actually.  It doesn’t actually add anything to the sentence, so out it goes . . . .

This is a lot of fun.  You try.


  1. Great advice, Jennifer! I have been going through my latest manuscript for things like this. Discovered I overdo "really" as well as "actually" and "exactly". Will check all other adverbs and question whether I need them, and search for specifi crutch phrases.

  2. Great point. Saw a discussion recently where some major bestselling author was criticized (I think it was the guy who writes the "Bourne" books??? maybe not) because his only way of showing surprise in a character was to say "his jaw dropped." So apparently about fifteen jaws plunked to the floor in just one book.

    Adjectives are seldom good ways to go; either they are cliches in which case the reader glazes over them without thinking (meaning, the brain starts to find other things to do, like make chore lists or consider masturbating again today), or they're esoteric, "literate" adjectives in which case most readers just hate the writer and the rest start feeling guilty they didn't get that MFA.

    I want my software to come with an adjective/adverb finder. With a "delete all" button. Rumor has it you can just hire a kid to cut them all out and you'll get your books in at the word count the editors want, and you may never be able to find any gaps in the manuscript where they once were.


  3. I agree — I HATE this! I remember one book in particular kept comparing people's backbones to wings, and I thought, God, find another metaphor already!

    I pray that a good editor will stop me from making the same mistake unknowingly 🙂

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