Note: This post was originally scheduled for 8/20/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.
I started to call this “Dueling Respondents” but that wouldn’t have been quite accurate. After all, as far as I know, the two writers who served as the catalyst for this post don’t even know each other.
One of those writers, upon reading my “Top 10 Mistakes Writers Make” argued, albeit lightly, that he had used many of the “mistakes” I argued against and that none of his readers seemed to care.
Point taken. Far be it from me to attempt to teach an old dog (I can talk because I’m an old dog too) new tricks, even if those tricks will help him retain readers.
The actual truth of the matter is that none of his readers seemed to care As Far As He Knows. That’s very different and more realistic than just assuming they didn’t care.
Most readers won’t bother to contact a writer to say “Hey, your book stinks.” Generally, I’ve found that most lay readers (those who are not also writers) have a dog’s outlook on life: if they can’t eat it or read it, they’ll tinkle on it and get on with their life.
Okay, to be absolutely fair, I should also mention that this particular author is a very strong writer and well-enough established that he probably can get away with some things that most of us wouldn’t be able to get away with. But that wasn’t the point.
The point was, having more readers is better than having fewer. Successful writers with bad habits also have a bad effect on writers who are younger in the craft.
Novices, while citing the success of other writers, often say silly things like “Well, Famous Author doesn’t use quotation marks around dialogue, so why should I?” or “Famous Writer’s work is replete with misplaced modifiers, so what’s wrong with them?” or “Famous Writer says adverbs are bad so I will never use an adverb.”
Or my personal-favorite avoidance clause: “The reader will know what I mean.” That, frankly, is a p-poor excuse for not learning and applying the craft. And no, when I wrote p-poor I wasn’t st-stammering. The reader will know what I mean.
The fact, plainly stated, is precisely this: Every single solitary time you write something that interrupts the reader, you’re running the risk of the reader having reached the point where he’s had enough. At that point, he’ll close your book and find something more enjoyable and less maddening to do.
I preach this constantly, even working it into seminars and classes and conversations and email exchanges that have nothing to do, directly, with the writer-reader interaction that occurs through your work. Yet some folks believe they’re immune, that “the reader will know what I meant.”
Of course, I’m a bit conflicted. As a writing instructor, I want what’s best for other writers. But I’m also a writer, and as more and more writers bow to mediocrity, the fewer I will have to compete against.
Okay, so if you honestly believe letting your narrator say the character “sat looking out the window” when she was already sitting or “gave his hand a shake” instead of saying “shook his hand” is a good idea, hey go for it.
If you believe it’s all right to let the narrator say in a tag line that your character “snickered” (or “laughed” or “cut in” or “gave back” or “returned” or “sentenced” or “tumbled out”) a line of dialogue instead of “said” a line of dialogue, that’s fine.
As an instructor, I have to shake my head in disbelief. But as a writer? Hey, I’m with you all the way!
If you believe the narrator saying the character “moved to the couch’s edge and pushed her glasses up her nose’s bridge” is as effective and clean as saying she “moved to the edge of the couch and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose,” that’s okay too.
If you believe it’s fine to let the narrator say “Bob’s nose pressed against the window” instead of “Bob pressed his nose against the window” or “Sharon’s legs raced wildly down the street” instead of “Sharon raced wildly down the street” or (Heaven forbid) “John’s eyes shot across the room” instead of “John quickly looked across the room,” PLEASE go ahead and write it that way.
If you think you should write “When he walked into the room several men sat at tables and others walked up or down the stairs” instead of saving reader confusion by writing “When he walked into the room several men were sitting at tables and others were walking up or down the stairs,” have at it.
And by all means, please, if you believe it doesn’t sound at all redundant and ludicrous to write “he thought to himself,” go right ahead.
At this point, I’m actually grinning, greedily and anxiously, and cheering for all those writers who know “the reader will know what I mean.” You betcha.
Oh, and the other respondent I mentioned at the beginning of this? She sent me an email recently. Here’s an excerpt:
I read only one chapter of a book I downloaded. That was as far as I could go.
“They both laughed. She nodded her head yes and they went in two opposite directions.”
And then there were words used incorrectly. For example, one guy was “nauseous” instead of “nauseated.” Then again, maybe he was. I never saw him. That was all I could take.
Do you suppose this reader (who also happens to be a very good writer) will contact the author of that book and tell him about these problems? Of course not. That isn’t her job.
The reader’s job is to suspend her sense of disbelief.
The writer’s job is to not buy it back.
‘Til next time, happy writing.
I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.
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