Different Ways to Say the Same Thing

Recently I read a trilogy by an author who shall remain nameless. In each of her three books one of the main characters in a fit of either exhaustion or frustration “pinched the bridge of his nose.” At first, I thought this was a clever way to show such emotion. I had no idea it was the only way. Throughout each of the three books I read by this author one or more characters pinch the bridge of their nose. It happens at least three times in each book. It got to the point where I was looking for the phrase, almost expecting it. It can stop a reader cold to notice such things…not to mention it takes one totally out of the story. What other body language indicates frustration or exhaustion that this author could have used? Maybe “She ran her hands through her hair and sighed.” Or how about, “He kicked at the ground with the toe of his boot, his brow knotted in frustration.” I would have killed for an eye roll and a hissy fit.
This author isn’t the only one who suffers from reusing fixed phrases to establish an emotion or explain an aspect of the setting. Many are guilty. Perhaps they just find a phrase they like that they feel captures the essence of a situation, not considering that if a person reads all their books they will see more of the same over and over again to the point of distraction. A friend from years back once commented that he was sick to death of opening an author’s book only to find the phrase “yellow glow of the sodium vapor lights” in countless numbers of them. Is this a result of formulaic writing? How does a writer stay away from such mistakes? Or maybe, as a member of my book club pointed out, I need to stop reading books like an English teacher and just enjoy them for what they are.

About M. Jaynes

A female educator with anger-management issues, M. Jaynes is causing change in the world by inspiring (some may say forcing) young minds to think for themselves and question everything.


  1. I’m not an English teacher, but I’m totally with you on this one. I don’t think it’s asking too much to have an opinion on how the book was written since you’re reading it.

    But the days of Mark Twain are gone as are the expectations of good writing. Just read the newspaper- It ain’t dying because of the internet. It’s the content.

  2. Someone made a suggestion in a workshop once, to do a ‘Find’ scan on words you sense you over use. This could be done with phases too. Your example shows how difficult it is to create real characters when the writer has only a small choice of personal tics or habits.

    Actually, it was Mark Twain that said, “if it’s the right word, no problem using it more than once.”

  3. if it is the right word, then it is always correct.

    if it is not, then maybe you are overusing it. obviously, you’re going to use words more than once.

  4. While I’m sure I’m as guilty of this as most authors, it is something so hard to catch as you write but so jarring when you read. I’ve had great passages ruined by suddenly noticing the same word or phrase used repeatedly.

    I’m surprised for published authors this isn’t something their editors catch.

  5. Scott Shields says

    Perhaps these repeated phrases are merely the 21st century version of a Homeric epithet–or maybe some authors simply run out of words.

  6. Homeric epithet? You mean like “D’oh!”?