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I'm writing a bit of fiction and what i have is an uncomfortable character who is clearing his throat before speaking. Is it better to say so literally:

Louis cleared his throat. "I'm not sure."

Or, in a quest for compactness perhaps:

"Ahem, I'm not sure."

Is there a preferred method, are onomatapoeic interjections bad practice or am I overthinking this?

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    I'd mix it up, but I don't know if this should be that common an expression. Or is this one of your character's "signature" things to do? There's also "Um," and "He choked a little." All have slightly different emphasis and meaning for the same thing. – DWKraus Nov 2 '20 at 2:12
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It honestly depends on the writing style.

Does the character clear their throat a lot? If so, I'd suggest writing out, "ahem." If not, I would go with, "[character] cleared their throat."

If your character clears their throat a lot, a good example of how to write that would be Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Professor Umbridge repeatedly clears her throat for attention and goes, "hem-hem." This incorporates her character's style as well as how often she clears her throat.

I hope this helped!

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I personally would use the first option, but either would work. I think that some readers would read the dialogue, and instead of substituting ahem with a small cough or something, might just read it as ahem. Maybe every few times combine the two into:

"Ahem, " he cleared his throat, "I'm not sure. "

Just to make it clear that ahem = throat clearing.

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Do you ever hear anyone saying ahem?

Might work for some characters in a period piece but not as a general rule.

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