Posted On February 17, 2016 by Print This Post

Please Stop Winking: The Problem with Shorthand and Cliché in Fiction by Harrison Demchick

A nudge is as good as a wink, they say. *Nudge, nudge, wink, wink* Sadly, I have a fondness for clichés, so avoiding them is an uphill battle for me. But – and here’s another cliché – too much of a good thing spoils the broth, or something like that. Today’s guest, Harrison Demchick, explains why shortcuts like clichés are not a writer’s friend. 

Recently I found myself editing a novel in which the characters wouldn’t stop winking.
They winked when they made jokes. They winked when they provided compliments. They winked in conjunction with innuendo. They winked several times in quick succession to multiple characters. They winked, in short, a lot.

In the grand scheme of editing, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Every writer has their go-to tendencies. One of my favorite past clients had characters rolling their eyes every other page. I myself overdo the quiet act of looking. And one of the helpful things an editor like me can do is point out those tendencies writers can’t see in themselves.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that there was something more going on here than tendency. It wasn’t just the fact of people in real life not winking anywhere near so often. There was a broader issue winking represented, and it’s one a lot of writers face.

It’s called shorthand.


What’s the cardinal guideline of writing? We all know it: Show, don’t tell.

There’s not a developmental editor in the world who hasn’t preached this at one point or another, and with good reason: A picture is worth a thousand words, even in writing. But oftentimes writers, wanting very much to show, find themselves relying on very easy, universally accepted actions to get their points across.

Like winking.

Winking suggests playfulness. It suggests camaraderie. It suggests wit. It’s an easily accessible shorthand for all kinds of qualities a writer may want to depict in their characters—and it’s visual, too, so readers can see the characters as playful, friendly, and witty right there on the page. That’s got to be a literary win, right?

The trouble is it’s too easy. We’ve seen it a million times. The reason the wink comes to mind so immediately for these qualities is because many, many other writers before have used it to convey the same thing. While that makes the wink universal, it also makes it obvious—which reveals the connection between shorthand and another frequent writing problem with which you may be a bit more familiar.

Can a simple action like winking really be a cliché? Well, not exactly, but cliché and shorthand emerge from basically the same place. When writing a story, using a cliché is an easy thing to do, because expressions like “a chill ran down my spine” and “I was happy as a clam” are familiar and generally understood. You don’t have to think especially hard to retrieve them because they’re part of the culture. And they express pretty much exactly what you want to express—just not in your own words.
That’s the problem. Clichés are unoriginal—we all know that. Easy, it turns out, lives right across the street from lazy. When you utilize clichés and tropes and stereotypes instead of crafting your own language and characters, you’re not really creating original work, and that’s demonstrative of lazy writing.

Winking isn’t a cliché, exactly, but it is obvious and overly familiar in the same way as a cliché, appearing in your manuscript instead of the dialogue and characterization you would otherwise use to convey such playfulness, or such wit, or such camaraderie. This doesn’t mean that winking as an action should be removed from all of English literature, or even from your entire manuscript, but if you find such a gesture appearing over and over again in your writing, it’s probably appearing to prevent you from having to build more complexity into your story and characters.


So how do we avoid shorthand? How do we ensure that we’re taking the time to develop our own story in our own words?

Sometimes it starts with slowing down. A lot of writers rush through their first draft—a perfectly valid strategy, but one that lends itself to shorthand. When you’re writing a scene, consider at the start what you mean to convey with that scene—not only in terms of action, but also in terms of characterization. If, for example, your intent is to show friendship, you can reveal this through witty repartee. You can do so with gestures particular to the characters, like a punch on the shoulder or secret handshake or any number of other things. Even better, you can let the action of the scene reveal friendship by virtue of the decisions your characters make.

The important thing is that you do it your way—a way that reflects your voice and your intent for these particular individuals. Maybe winking genuinely does reflect that, but you can’t let it be the entirety of your characterization, which is exactly what you do when you rely on it too consistently.

Feedback and Revision
Like I said at the start, we all have tendencies in our writing in one form or another. It’s not something we can always see. But when it’s pointed out, it’s important to realize that these tendencies often have causes that go beyond simply a personal liking for particular words and expressions. Part of the process of revising is figuring out the root cause of the issues you face and addressing that.

So if you tend toward winking, or eye-rolling, or some phrasing you can’t stop using, don’t just find new synonyms or equivalent gestures. Consider why you keep using such shorthand and work to devote more effort to conveying your world in your own personal voice.


What tendency shows up in your writing? And what do you do to avoid it?

Best-selling author Brenda Novak joins us on Friday to discuss longevity in romance.




Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.

Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally.

Check out the brand new, revamped Writer’s Ally website at!

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19 Responses to “Please Stop Winking: The Problem with Shorthand and Cliché in Fiction by Harrison Demchick”

  1. Nice post. My characters look and nod too much. Maybe I should let them try winking…

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | February 17, 2016, 7:11 am
    • Maybe so, Carol! When true to the character and not used too often, most gestures like that can work just fine. And being aware of your own tendencies, as you seem to be, is one of the best ways to get them under control. (Actually, now that you mention it, I tend to overdo the looking too.)

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | February 17, 2016, 8:28 am
  2. I don’t think I’ve ever had one of my characters wink for any reason but, I admit, I am guilty of using a cliche or two per book. I generally use them in dialog and it’s always something the character would almost certainly say – it’s ‘in character’ for them and/or it conveys a moment of levity. For example, when a farmer’s wife prods her teenage grandson, “Get a move on; you’re as slow as molasses!” we all picture a reluctant, lazy teen not at all bent on doing the task at hand. The cliche works because it’s in character.

    I can see where overuse of an expression like a wink or overuse of cliches would be construed as author laziness but a little literary license to use one wink and a cliche or two in a story goes a long way. If we restrain ourselves just a bit, these devices can work for us instead of being road bumps for the reader.

    Posted by Anne Hagan | February 17, 2016, 7:17 am
    • Anne, that’s exactly right. A couple weeks ago I wrapped up work on an edit with an author who has a different sort of tendency: too many single-sentence paragraphs. Isolating a sentence in a single paragraph is a great way to emphasize it, but do it too often and it loses its effectiveness. If everything is emphasized, nothing is. But cut back on the frequency and suddenly this same (very talented) author is writing with tremendous impact.

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | February 17, 2016, 8:31 am
      • Good point! I like those short, choppy paragraphs occasionally, but use them too often and they distance me from the story. I have come across these in thrillers and womens’ fiction where this method increased the impact of the story, but I agree that limited use would be more powerful.

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 17, 2016, 8:55 am
  3. I have a tendency to have my characters frown, scowl, grimace, etc. when I’m sure I could think of something else for them to do the show whatever negative emotion it is.

    Thanks for the eye-opener.

    Posted by Glynis Jolly | February 17, 2016, 7:29 am
  4. I have a lot of trouble with the word “look.” Sometimes I’ll catch myself using it two or three times in one paragraph, but when I try to find a replacement, I can never seem to find an appropriate word. They either seem too, I guess you could say too ornate, or they imply something more complicated than the simple look I’m trying to get across.

    I know certain authors – mega best sellers – who tend to use almost the identical words to describe a lovers’ clinch. After awhile it sucks the emotion from a scene when I come across the same description over and over again, even without cliches.

    I get a kick out of cliches, to some extent, and I know my early attempts at writing drove my critique partners insane because I was the only one who thought it was funny to use them.

    You’ve made your point, Harrison, and now I’m going to go back and see what my characters have been doing without my noticing it. I’m safe when it comes to winking – at least, I think I am – but God knows what other little tics might have slipped past me!

    Thanks for a very helpful post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 17, 2016, 8:51 am
    • Thank you for hosting me! Like I said above, I have issues with “look” too, and really for a very similar reason–I love those small, quiet moments where a look communicates things more effectively and subtly than dialogue would. But those looks become less meaningful when it’s all the characters do. I tend toward “glance” as often, but really the solution is picking different gestures and movements that convey more or less the same feeling or moment I’m looking for.

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | February 17, 2016, 12:30 pm
  5. Harrison – Your comment about the short, sharp sentences and paragraphs made me think of a personal pet peeve. It’s a personal issue, and I know a lot of people won’t agree. I just can’t read dialect, whether it’s a foreign language, a type of slang or alien-speak in a sci-fi novel. I skim those sections whenever I come across them. I guess your wink-rule holds true here, too – small doses of dialect are fine, it’s needing a glossary to get through a page that pulls me right out of a story.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 17, 2016, 8:58 am
    • Dialect is one of those things that can work really, really well, or really, really badly, depending almost entirely on the author’s ear for it. For example, maybe the best novel I ever edited is Purple Jesus by Ron Cooper, and that novel is filled with dialect typical to the South Carolina low country in which it’s set. But Ron grew up there, and moreover has a brilliant ear for the language of the region, so it works great.

      We all have different strengths though, and dialect is a hard one to learn to do effectively if you’re not already a natural at it. A lot of authors aren’t, and when they try it the words come out awkward, and sometimes difficult to understand. I know I’m not good at it, even though in other respects I’m very happy with my dialogue. So what I do instead–and what I generally recommend to authors for whom dialect doesn’t come naturally–is focus on rhythm and word choice. You can convey a region or accent very effectively by focusing less on the way you construct your words than the way you construct your sentences.

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | February 17, 2016, 12:36 pm
  6. I tend to use the “chill ran down his spine” LOL. Great post.

    Posted by Mercy | February 17, 2016, 5:21 pm
  7. Harrison, thank you so much for a great post and for spending the day with us today. Have a fun weekend!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 18, 2016, 12:08 am
  8. I really like this blog post, and i found it very useful! I think that it’s really important for an author to have several seo articles written about your book, and personally i’d like to talk about this outstanding seo writer, who helped me a lot to increase my books sales! Check it out, i hope it can be useful for someone else!

    Posted by Federico Calafati | February 20, 2016, 2:43 am
  9. I needed this article so much. I recently gave a friend a book to edit and her first comment was “Stop with the winking!” I didn’t realise how much I have characters winking. In a book I’m working on now I’m more conscious of taking the easy way out. This was very helpful!

    Posted by Lisa Lancaster | February 23, 2016, 8:34 pm


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  2. […] Harrison Demchick explores the consequences of shorthand in fiction in his new guest post at Romance University. Shorthand gestures like winking, Harrison explains, are too […]

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