I intended to review the book I’m about to discuss, but thought better of it as I got deeper into the text. My review philosophy is simple: if I can’t say something nice, I won’t say anything at all. Therefore, without revealing the author or the title of the book, I will use what I read as an example of how to kill your reader. Here are a few suggestions.
1. The book is written like a young girl might talk/think. Thoughts are fragmented and incomplete, and modifier clauses modify the wrong things. Punctuation is nil. I know the book was written in English, but I logged about 150 notes on bad punctuation before I gave up. Dashes and semicolons are used in new and unusual ways. For any of you who might wonder, there is no punctuation mark before a dash—period. After very little time, bad punctuation gets irritating.
2. The book is so loaded with trite phrases it was hard to find a creative expression. I lost count of how many times “to say the least,” “a bit,” “for all intents and purposes,” and “all said and done” ended sentences. There were also split infinitives, like “…to hopefully grow…” POV issues also cropped up where, in some instances, the main character knew what other characters were thinking. These can be tricky, like “…he simply nodded, unconcerned…” There is no way for the character to know if another is unconcerned. If you want to kill your reader, these are good ways to do it.
3. Passive voice is rampant, like “I continued to remain…” and “…he was smiling…” I hadn’t given this much thought for some time because my editors kill me for that, but when it is left unchecked, it literally wears the reader down. That’s not a good thing. Authors should use a word search to seek out instances of “was” and “were” and eliminate them where possible.
4. Tense shifted from past to present and back again in the same paragraph. For example, “Now he was …” introduced a discussion about a man who is. The main character also “liked” to read (as if she no longer enjoys it) vs. “likes” to read. Sometimes the drive to get into past tense was so strong sentences would begin, “I’d had…” That made the book hard to read, like throwing a roadblock in front of a smooth encounter with words.
5. Periods were frequently placed outside quotes. For that matter, single quotes were used to set off things, but single quotes should only be used inside double quotes. The punctuation is always inside the quote. Some quote marks were backwards. These are small things, but readers notice.
6. There were missing words, like “I” and “than.” I understand those are very common and easy to overlook but, hey, that’s why we love writing. Proof reading is vital because readers notice when those words are missing.
7. Adverbs dominated every sentence, like “determinedly,” “seemingly,” and “unnecessarily.” I’ve never seen so many adverbs. Adverbs are a sign of writing inexperience. They should be avoided. Instead of using them, they should be a call to show more and tell less. I’ve never seen such a strong case for eliminating adverbs, but now I know—adverbs can stab a reader in the eyes.
8. The book was almost entirely tell vs. show. My editors have killed me for that. Even worse, in some instances where a bit of “show” was attempted, it was followed by “tell.” Arrrgggg!
9. Meaningless sentences, those with actual subjects and verbs, could be found in every chapter. I found myself re-reading the same text many times, only to conclude the text just didn’t make sense no matter how many times I read it. Yes, this too can kill a reader.
10. One of my major problems with the writing was incomplete sentences. Those go with the incomplete thoughts I mentioned under item #1. An English teacher once told me, “If you can think it, you can write it.” I guess the converse is also true. If you can’t think it, you can’t write it. The choppy, half-sentences were a total distraction. I sensed reader death at every turn.
11. Lots of sentences began with “but” or “and,” although for the life of me I don’t know why. I also got tired of reading the words “very,” “however,” and “that.” “May” was used when no one was asking permission—“might” should have been used. Such usage might seem trivial, but when presented over and over, it grinds the reader down.
12. “But” was used where the author actually meant, “and.” I’ve made that mistake more times that I care to remember. An experienced reader will pick it out in a flash, and he/she won’t like it.
13. By far the most distracting issue for me was the apparent quest to increase word count. Sometimes the same thing would be said three and four times using different words. In other cases, the character would set up a discussion by stating the negative, and then argue why the initial statement wasn’t correct. There were also statements like “I seemed to remember…” that interfered with the flow of the story. What does that mean? Did she remember or did she not remember? Statements like that only add an aura of confusion to the story…and increase word count. In other cases, the narrative just drifted off into completely irrelevant areas and topics. Then, and this turned me off more than all the others, there were constant qualifications to the narrative. Statements like, “Into every life a little sunshine must fall, or something like that.” None of that added to the story. It took away. It killed the story. It will also kill the reader. Repetition in writing should be avoided at all cost. Forget word count—say it once and say it well!
I could go on with this, but I want to stop at unlucky thirteen. My point is not to flog you with examples of bad writing, but to make a point: rules of writing exist for a reason, and the number one reason is so you won’t lose your reader. We all began our writing careers making most of the mistakes I’ve complained about above. Everyone should make it a New Year’s resolution to study writing technique more and to write better this year.
Thanks for listening to me whine,
James L. Hatch
Author for Solstice Publishing and Eternal Press
BTW, if you like to laugh, try any of the paranormal comedies shown on this blog. Thanks!