As a new or accomplished writer, what are you guilty of?
Are you guilty of being arrogant? Is your reader the enemy you’re writing at because you really need to put your brilliant prose on paper? Of course, ninety-nine point nine percent of readers are about as bright as an amoeba on a bad cell day, so your genius is totally wasted. But this is about you and your obsession to write. Right? —WRONG.
Are you guilty of being clever? You use words, scientific or otherwise, that have readers paging through a dictionary like a chipmunk on crack to understand what the heck you’re talking about. For example: Cavernulous – just say porous already. Otherwise, you’ve killed the flow and probably the reader’s enthusiasm to read your story.
Are you guilty of gimmick writing? You write everything in the present tense because it suits your literary genius. Or you exclude a word you hate from the entire manuscript, like that, said or had. I’m all for cutting down on these words, but sometimes they’re needed. Do you omit punctuation or new paragraphs, or remove dialogue all together and just narrate? It can work, but you have to be inventive to hold the reader’s interest. There are many versions of artifices that only stroke the author’s ego and cause the reader to tear out his hair. All you do is make the experience of reading your story uncomfortable. You put a barrier between the reader and the story until all they see is the author intruding into their pleasure of the story.
At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself if you value your reader. Do you really want your reader scratching his head, paging back to try to understand what you’re saying, or skipping paragraphs that are annoying? Is your aim to make him think about the deep meaning of your story, or to make your reader feel dense?
A reader may not remember all the details of a story, but he will always remember how you made him feel. Readers want to laugh, cry, hold their breaths, or sigh with relief. Are you guilty of not evoking any of these emotions?
Are you guilty of telling the reader a character is being funny or sarcastic? Like, writing, “she teased lightly,” or “his words dripped with sarcasm.” Make your writing speak with actions, emotions, and dialogue.
Are you guilty of swamping the reader with details that don’t add to the story or of repeating information in case he “didn’t get it” the first time round? Giving readers every detail of what characters are doing is tiresome. Readers are smart. They will fill in details like characters needing to put on shoes and a jacket and fetching an umbrella before going into a howling rain storm. It’s okay for them to just shrug into a jacket and go—have them flick open the umbrella as they walk out. In short, don’t make shopping lists of actions and don’t give readers every detail from the socks to the hat to the brushing of his teeth.
Are you guilty of not editing, editing, and editing multiple times before sending the manuscript to an editor or launching it on Amazon? Can you be sure there are no plot flaws, typos, or grammatical errors? Show respect for your reader—and editor, for that matter, and EDIT, over and over before releasing the manuscript.
Are you guilty of creating too many coincidences to make your plot work? Every action and scene that leads to the climax must be believable. If a character says, “I can’t believe that happened!” the reader will probably be thinking me neither. If it’s improbable, set it up ahead of time. She fell off the mountain and a piton caught her jacket, saving her. Show us the piton long before it catches on her jacket—set it up, make it feel probable.
Are you guilty of throwing readers constant curveballs, then leaving then hanging while you move on to another scene? You can get away with this once, but not in every chapter. They want to know if the gun fired at the character killed them or not—and they want to know in this chapter. They don’t want to wait three chapters to find out, while the second character is hanging from a cliff by their jacket in the next chapter. It’s all about seamless flow—making it a great reading experience.
Are you guilty of misleading the reader with a “hook” in the first paragraph of the first chapter that doesn’t fit the plot? Your story is a thriller and the lead characters are making out in a park while their children play on the swings. Sonny Jim disappears and a frantic hunt ensues. If your book is about kidnapping or some other dark plot about kids being snatched, then you have the right hook. But if these characters never again show up in the book and your story is actually about an affair at an office, you’ve got the wrong hook.
Readers are not reading the story to admire your literary genius—they want to be entertained. It’s all about them and what they want and need. After all, they PAID for the book.
Above all, clothe yourself in humility. Realize that as a writer you are nothing more than a servant applying your skill to please your master—the reader.
Picture a world where you’re surrounded by people who can’t read. Would you still write?
Some pearls of wisdom:
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.
It's the rare writer who excels at all aspects of the craft. There are masterful stylists who, at bottom, have remarkably little to say. And there are vigorous thinkers whose sentences plod along like the lumbering steps of a draft horse.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
--William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)