How To Annoy Your Reader

What pet peeves set readers’ teeth on edge? Washington Post writer Ron Charles wrote about them in this recent article. He asked members of the Post’s Book Club newsletter to let their opinions fly, and, he says, “The responses were a tsunami of bile” from hundreds and hundreds of readers. In case you’re working on a book now or even thinking about it, you’ve been warned.

Readers don’t like dreams. And why not? Is it because as you’re starting to get a mental grip on what’s going on in the story, you suddenly hit that “and then I woke up” line that means you have to mentally erase what you just read? Or, is it as one respondent said, “They are always SO LITERAL.” One example where this type of thing was handled very well was in Paul Cleave’s latest book, The Pain Tourist (my review here). There was never any confusion about whether you were in the comatose boy’s dream-mind, and he put together reality (what was going on around him in real life) and his mind’s protective mechanisms (the illusion that masked the horrible events that led to his coma) was quite astonishing and revelatory.

As you’d expect, readers take offense at historical anachronisms and factual inaccuracies. In essence, “say, dear reader, blah-blah-blah.” Too jarring. At the same time, unless an author is writing for twelve-year-olds, they shouldn’t avoid the occasional word that might send some readers to the dictionary. Not to be pretentious, but because it’s exactly the right word.

Readers want authors to write with authenticity. One respondent warned that “taking a cruise to Alaska is not enough to write a novel about the Last Frontier.” You can take the cruise and write the book, of course, if you bolster that with a lot of additional research.

Typos and grammar errors. Oh, boy. I confess I look up “lie” and “lay” nearly every time I use them (this was one of the errors singled out, along with popular misused homonyms). I’ve read it wrong so many times I don’t even know what’s correct any more. It’s worth the twenty seconds to check, so I don’t lie (ha-ha) awake at night, wondering.

Recently, I read a UK thriller where the author repeatedly used the wrong pronoun case. “He gave it to him and I,” “the book was for her and I,” etc. I was fuming. That’s something he should have learned in junior high. If you turn the sentence around, you see how bad it is: “he gave it to I and him.” And, while this particular error might be forgiven in dialog, because people do make mistakes while speaking, it kept appearing in the narration. This particular book was also, alas, morally bankrupt, so there was a lot not to like.

Readers complained about books that are simply too long. Especially books by best-selling authors Do they think “every word they write is golden and shouldn’t be cut?” one respondent wondered. And it isn’t just the book that’s too long, so are the prologues, chapters, descriptions, and everything else in them and especially those italicized passages. It seems italicized paragraphs hit a nerve with readers. Don’t do it, they say.

“What Readers Don’t Like” – Part 2 WEDNESDAY

7 thoughts on “How To Annoy Your Reader

  1. I’m happy to hear that using the correct word, even if difficult when it is the right one. I’m even happier to know I am with such a distinguished company when using lie or lay. Thanks, Ron and Victoria

  2. Talk about annoying, I clicked on Mr. Charles’ article and read about a quarter of it when an ad popped up saying that if I wanted to continue reading I’d have to subscribe to the Washington Post–something I wasn’t interested in doing. From what I did read, I agreed with most of it. I only hope that he mentioned the irritating habit that’s being promoted by certain groups of incorrect pronoun usage. An example: I was a judge in a short story competition and the author had written a story where he wanted to keep the gender of a villainous assassin a secret. Long story short, the villain was cloaked in a disguise and had an acrobatic ability. The big reveal came with the revelation that the assassin was a female, however in the text before the reveal the author kept using the plural pronoun, “they”, in his descriptions. (Example: Rick watched the wraith-like figure move over the rooftop. They moved with a feline grace.) I found it very offsetting and irritating, and kept thinking a sentence about a second assassin had been omitted. Once “the reveal” was been presented I realized the author’s attempt to keep the gender a secret, but it just didn’t work for me. Needless to say, that story didn’t make the finals. I’ve also seen militant groups urging changes to our language eliminating words like “mankind” and “human” because of they contain the word “man,” which these groups apparently consider sexist. The rules of grammar exist for a reason, and inaccurate writing or whimsical political trends shouldn’t malign them. It’s bad writing and misleading communication.

    • I think you mean “off-putting.” I read a story recently myself that seemed to use the trendy “they” in order to mask the subject’s gender. Super-annoying! There are other ways to hide gender. But just adopting “they” seems lazy.

  3. “He gave it to him and I.” That seems to always trip up people. They way I was taught to know when to use me or I is to make it singular: “He gave it to I.’ No, that doesn’t work. It should be “He gave it to me.”

    Things I hate most: you’re/your and too/to. What always trips me up and has me checking the dictionary are insure/ensure/assure.

    • I think we all have those “blind spots.” And, frankly, seeing so many errors, you start to question which form is correct, really? I wrote a short story called “The Widow’s Pique,” about a woman who wrote a son out of her will (for good reason). My husband thought the title was bad, because no one knows what a widow’s peak is any more and won’t get the joke. Sigh.

  4. A niggling point: Not to say that the author shouldn’t try to get it right in the first place, but wouldn’t any reputable editor catch mistakes like “lie” vs. “lay” and “me” vs. “I”? That’s what comes of all the DIY writers out there today who don’t feel they need a professional publisher or even editor. No writer is infallible, but before the book hits print those hiccups should be fixed by an objective pro.

    • I totally agree. You may (not) be surprised to learn that the “I” versus “me” misuse occurred repeatedly in a traditionally published book, not a self-published one. There should have been a professional reader/editor/proofreader somewhere in the mix who would have spotted that at once!

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