This will be the first time I’ve repeated a blog, but I find it necesssary. In the past 24 hours I’ve reviewed two manuscripts that–although pretty good–violated this principle far too boldly for my taste. One infraction was a lip-chew in the first chapter and the other was a skipped heartbeat on page two.

If you read this a year ago when I first posted it, it won’t hurt to read it again. Your heart might even skip a beat at the wisdom here.

From April 2010:

First, let me say that I compiled this list at least two years ago…so if I’m your editor, please know that this list was not the result of something YOU did.

That said, here is my pet peeve about some mannerisms in fiction.

How often do you really shake your head? Or swallow hard just because you’re nervous? Does your heart really skip a beat when you’re in love? (If so, you should see a cardiologist right away).

Sorry, I’m still stuck on the mannerisms in a novel I recently read. The author has at least a dozen occurences of someone shaking their head when they say no to something:

Maggie shook her head. “Only the doctor can help now.”

But do people shake their heads all that often? I don’t think I ever do. I know the reader will “get it,” so when I edit a novel with shaking heads all over the place, I may leave a few instances…but I’m certainly going to cut back in frequency. It just doesn’t happen that often in real life. Besides, it sounds hollow and very unimaginative.

Here’s my list of the trite mannerisms I do not normally allow to be repeated in the fiction I edit. (Maybe once. Maybe even twice…but thrice? He shook his head decidedly no.)

Feel free to add your own suggestions. I’m all ears (he said as he raked his fingers through his hair).


curling lips
furrowed brows
knitting of brows
lip biting, chewing, or gnawing
hair raked through his;/her fingers
heart pounding
heart skipping a beat
swallowing hard when nervous
blood draining from the head
stomach knotted
lifted or arched eyebrow
nostrils flaring
narrowing of eyes
eyes blinking
shaking of head
muscles in the jaw twitching
throat tightening
tucking a tendril of hair behind her ear
face knotted
eyes fluttered open
every muscle in her body tensed
covering mouth with hand
temples throbbed
lifting the corners of the mouth
pushed a smile up from his lips
chest tightened
clearing his throat
cheeks warm
letting out a slow breath

More contributions?

17 replies
  1. Jan Cline
    Jan Cline says:

    A super big ouch! OK so Ive printed out this list and Im hanging it on my computer screen. I guess you really want us to get creative. Instruction received and taken to heart. (oops is that a cliche?)
    Thanks Nick

  2. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    Ah, yes. When I first started critiquing inspy fiction, I referred to this syndrome as “His-gut-clenched-Her-heart-fell.” I think it grows out of a sincere desire to “show, not tell,” but it tends to make a story sound a little naive. This is a great list to have! Hard, though, to come up with deeper ways of showing.

  3. Sally Apokedak
    Sally Apokedak says:

    How happy I am to find the cringe, the shrug, and the good old waggling eyebrows absent from the list. They are among my favorites. 🙂 I must admit, too, that the hearts of my characters often beat quite wildly.

    What do you suggest, Nick? Do we just tell—he was frightened—instead of having his heart clench in terror? Because sometimes I think it’s OK to just tell it. But my crit partners tell me to show all these things.

  4. Richard Mabry
    Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, With a grimace, a shrug, and a sad shake of my head, I have to acknowledge that I’ve been guilty of adding excessive gestures to my novels. My first book was full of them, and Dr. Dennis Hensley, when he was trying to teach me some of the fundamentals of writing, took me to task about it. But–sigh–although the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak, and sometimes they still creep in.
    Thanks for reminding us…again.

  5. Nick
    Nick says:

    Sally, no you should show, not tell….but use fresh images.

    Richard, whenever you go back through a draft and see one such phrase, just figure out a fresher way to show it.

  6. Momma Mindy
    Momma Mindy says:

    I’m not impressed when a character feels something “with every fiber of her being” or is doing something with bile in the back of their throat, pushing it back, or swallowing it down or whatever it is. However, I think I’m guilty of some of the other things…will file this list away in writing tips. Thanks, Nick.

  7. Melissa K. Norris
    Melissa K. Norris says:

    I have to share that I didn’t have a single reference to half of the list, but I made up for it with she/he swallowed. 33 times to be exact! Not a single one remains and you are right, Nick. There are much better alternatives, you just have to dig a little deeper.

  8. Edwina Cowgill
    Edwina Cowgill says:


    I love this post! You have a great sense of humor and a delightful way of relating your thoughts. ‘
    “She grinned sheepishly.” How can one grin “sheepishly?” Does one suddenly sprout woolly faces and two little ears on top of their head?

  9. Sue Harrison
    Sue Harrison says:

    Oh oh. Like Jan I’m going to print this out (and maybe glue it to my perpetually lifted eyebrows). Thanks for the info, Nick. I’ve just discovered your blog and it is super.

  10. Monte
    Monte says:

    Wow, I don’t know what to say. But I am writing to learn from better writers. …People do swallow when nervous. I suppose it isn’t necessarily ‘hard’ however. Eyes do narrow. People do cover their mouths. And people clear their throats. I agree fresh images are needed and are found in all great literature, but these are mundanities – simple mannerisms. Is it really helpful to try to elevate them to an art form? I agree clichés are boring and we should stay away from them but unless something in the story really turns on the point, a wince is just a wince, isn’t it?

    • Nick
      Nick says:

      It’s the overuse I’m mostly referring to, Monte. I allow a wince here and there, but not repeatedly. And I much prefer fresh images to stale ones.

  11. Stephanie Reed
    Stephanie Reed says:

    Late to this discussion. I think this is what happens when we’re told to show, not tell. But there’s a difference between reading a police report about an incident and actually witnessing it, right? The expressions above are mostly honest observations. My heart pounded for a bit this morning when I spotted a oncoming car (without headlights) after I’d pulled into the street. It happens. But if hearts pound all through your MS, your readers will fall out of the story. Unless you’re Edgar Allan Poe.

    I’m curious–if instead of “lifting the corners of the mouth” my character “quirked a smile,” is that better? Or may I say his smile is sardonic? Is that too much telling? I’m reading Mary Roberts Rinehart on my Kindle and it seems we’ve lost a lot of descriptive words in current writing.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Nick Harrison (no relation as far as I know) is a book editor . He writes about words used to describe a character’s mannerisms. It wasn’t until I read his blog post that I realized that so many of my characters were afflicted with perpetually raised eyebrows.  It’s easy to overuse these simple descriptions. Check out his ideas at […]

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