the writer’s tic – it’s all about the invisible gorilla

Lots of us have writing tics. A writing tic is involuntary, something we do without thinking. Many of us get a writing tic or two when producing a first draft. But we only find this out afterwards, when we read through what we’ve written.

So what’s a writing tic? Well, someone said to me the other day that they had written the ways in which ten times in three pages – that’s a tic. The tic is something that we write habitually and repetitively. Over and over. Again and again. (See what I did there.)

A tic might be a word or a phrase. I used to write ‘clearly’ a lot – starting a sentence Clearly, blah blah blah – and I usually wrote this when something wasn’t clear at all. I just wanted it to be.

Or the tic might be a particular sentence construction. I notice a lot of academic writers who say What is most important in this situation isWhat is key to X’s analysis is… This sentence construction is a bit awkward (and can easily be changed). If this syntactical move happens a lot, I usually end up (irritated and) wishing the author had proof read more carefully, checking for tics.

Sometimes people use rhetorical questions a lot. Don’t they? 😬 Or they make bullet point lists rather more than is decent. Or perhaps they do a 1,2,3 sentence construction at the start of nearly every paragraph – as in In relation to x, we have to consider 1, 2 and 3

I’m sure you can add more academic writerly tics that you’ve noticed too!

And why do tics happen I hear you ask? (Rhetorical question 2.) The usual explanation is that it’s a case of invisible gorillas. If you don’t know about invisible gorillas, watch the video to find out.

 Selective attention it’s called. Our brains can only deal with so much information at once, the theory goes. We therefore screen out the information which isn’t most relevant to our immediate concerns.

So, apply this theory to academic writing… when we write a first draft we are generally so busy keeping the flow of the argument, the various bits of evidence and the relevant sources in our minds, we just don’t have time to worry about the niceties of expression. It’s only when we come back to the text that we see we’ve had one or more writing tics for company.

Gah. How did I do this, you ask yourself.

Well, if/when this happens to you,  just say invisible gorillas to yourself. Tell yourself it’s not just you that has the odd writing tic. It’s a well known phenomenon. It’s even got a name all to itself.

It clearly (hah) helps to be aware of our own idiosyncratic writing tics. We can then watch out for them when we are revising.

But it can be extremely disconcerting if you are half way through a piece of writing and the awareness that you’ve got a writing tic inserts itself into your mind. You see the gorilla and it distracts you from continuing. No, no, I’m doing that again. Still. You become extremely self-conscious and lose the flow. You might even get stuck.

So one possibility is to stop and sort out the writing tics then and there, and go back to the writing at another time.

Another possibility, if you’re tic self aware, is to see the word, phrase or syntactical move as a kind of temporary fix. A tic can be a bit like a safety pin in a hem. It does the job now, but you can’t leave it forever. But you can go out in public even with a safety pin in place. You keep writing in the knowledge that you will come back to the text later to undo the problematic tic,  and to make a more secure writing choice.


See more about the invisible gorilla work by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons here.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in drafting, invisible gorilla, revision, selective attention, writing tic and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to the writer’s tic – it’s all about the invisible gorilla

  1. My (often successful) remedy is to always keep a novel handy, preferably something that I don’t know well (and probably have never read) but by an author whose use of language is richer than mine. If I feel stuck I just open up the book randomly, let my eyes catch an inspiring phrase or two, or perhaps spot a fresh (for me) way to start a paragraph.


  2. Pingback: The Literature Review | phdreflexive

  3. David Hoffmann says:

    Thank you, Pat, now I know how this thing is called (and that I am an invisible gorilla))
    My most common “writer’s tic” is using passive voice (I definitely love it), but there are other from time to time (especially rhetoric questions – another thing I love). Often, I spot those tics while using sentence structure/grammar checking tool, like this one , suppose it is a good idea to read what you have written multiple times before sending to somewhere, but it is pretty obvious.


  4. Pingback: How writing is like cake making. #acwri | the édu flâneuse

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