Saturday, January 11, 2014

How To Kill Your Reader

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!


Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

Sounds as if the author could have benefited from not only a copy editor but a content editor as well.

Penny's Tales said...

Great post! Of course I was trying desperately to see if it could have been one of mine....LOL

Thanks for sharing

Penny's Tales said...

Great post! Of course I was trying desperately to see if it could have been one of mine....LOL

Thanks for sharing

Tina Donahue said...

I'm curious - who pubbed the book? Did it have an editor? Was it self-pubbed?

Also, what's its ranking on Amazon and the other sites?

Believe me, not everyone notices grammatical errors. Especially non-writers.

My late husband was a classically trained musician (trumpet). Went to Julliard. He couldn't understand how I could like pop music. He thought all of it was crap because it wasn't written in the same vein as Mozart, Wagner, etc.

Again and again he pointed out flaws in the music. I didn't hear them. I liked the beat. The lyrics. The singer. In other words, I didn't notice the flaws because I'm not a classically trained musician.

I think the same goes with writing. We can be purists or we can entertain. If we entertain, it's my bet that the story will sell. If we're purists to the point that being grammatically correct is more important than plot/characterization/etc., then we won't sell.

jean hart stewart said...

Interesting post and comments. A story's got to be darned interesting for me to overlook grammatical errors. Very hard for me to do.

jean hart stewart said...

Interesting post and comments. A story's got to be darned interesting for me to overlook grammatical errors. Very hard for me to do.

jean hart stewart said...

Interesting post and comments. A story's got to be darned interesting for me to overlook grammatical errors. Very hard for me to do.

Nik said...

So many 'new' writers eschew the writing guides, yet they spell out the basics. Some clearly don't read books - analyse a few books and you'll be a better writer... I could go on, James. Good post. I hope you didn't read it to the end!

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Nik. No, I didn't finish. I got 71% through it and the frustration level got so high I had to quit. It was like being trapped in the mind of an adolescent female. I just couldn't take it. Thanks for the comment!

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Ella. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I thought the book needed a good editor. I have been fortunate to be assigned really great editors from Solstice Publishing. They have taught me a lot. I only made the comments because there were so many problems. It isn't that I'm a purest either. I just couldn't slog through it. I hope some of the new writers pay heed.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Penny. No, of course not ... it wasn't one of your books. That will remain my secret. As I said, I've probably made all those mistakes myself, and I don't want to discourage anyone who enjoys writing. I just want to get the word out that, sometimes, the writing can be so odd that it will cause a reader to flee.
Thanks for dropping by!

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Tina. Great comment, but no, I don't think I was overly sensitive this time. The whole book seemed to me to be a text on how to kill your reader. I don't want to name the publisher or author. No need to cast stones. Like I've said, I probably made all those errors myself (although not in such great quantity). Fortunately for me, some very talented (and patient) editors stepped up to help me. For that matter, they still are. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Jean. I'm with you. I could not finish the book, no matter how good the story. There is a limit to what I can take when I have to go back time and again to re-read chunky test. I love good writing, and frequently laud both good writing and good editing (as in Melissa Foster's books). If the story doesn't flow, the reader is gone. Worse, he/she will not likely buy another of your books. Thank you for taking the time to read the post!

Fiona McGier said...

I agree with Tina in that if you are not a voracious reader, you probably won't notice the errors that you felt slapped you in the face. How so?

Roger Ebert was a wonderful film critic, and his claim was "he sat through all of the bad movies so we wouldn't have to." But the movies he praised I found stultifying and boring. He loved films that were "fraught with fraughtness", and I prefer films with lots of action, alien invasions, space battles, and/or well-filmed special effects monsters...I don't even mind CGI when it's done well. So the movie critic, who knew more about the craft of film-making than I ever want to know, had a much different yardstick for great films than I do. I only know what I find interesting enough to pay for watching.

Most readers are like that also. Lots of folks bought the Harry Potter books because "everyone else was", and very few of them continued to read after that series was done. Same thing with FSOG, which seemed to not have been edited at all. But it was a best-seller and readers lapped it up. Then most stopped reading again.

Who knows what the "magic" touch is to excite people for whom reading is last on their scale of interesting ways to spend leisure time? But to a non-reader, all of the things that irritated you won't even be noticed. All they are interested in is if the story draws them in enough for them to care about the characters. And if the target audience is teen-aged girls, then being in that mind-set will seem natural to them.

The English teacher in me wants everyone to read great literature, or at least books that are examples of how the craft of writing can ennoble us all and enhance our inner lives with revelations. The reality is that many adults haven't read a complete book in about 6 years, according to the last study I read.
Mediocrity rules.

James L. Hatch said...

You might be right, Fiona. Please don't think me a reading prude. I am not. I even like the same kind of movies you do. No, this one was beyond the limits of reason, even though I believe it is a well-known book. I just scraped the surface with the few comments I made. The repetition in the book alone could drive a sane person nuts. Oh, well, if even one writer takes heed of even one comment, I guess my rant will have been worthwhile. As always, thank you for your valued input.

BTW, I did not know you were an English teacher. Way to go! From what I hear, that takes guts these days.