Books that display poor writing practices make me stop reading. In this article, I look at five poor writing practices to avoid.
I read a lot. I always have, but in the past my reading was limited by the cost of books. The arrival of ereaders on the publishing scene made books cheaper –especially indie books – which allowed me to indulge my passion for reading. But I read so much that I was still spending a lot each month, and so I joined Kindle Unlimited (KU) where I pay a monthly fee and can read as many books as I want without extra charge – as long as they’re in KU. This has allowed me to try all manner of books because if I don’t like them or they don’t hold me, I simply return them and find another.
Cheaper but less trustworthy
When I paid $25 for paperbacks, I took a long time to choose one I thought I’d like, and I always finished them. Publication by a mainstream publishing house – as they all were back then – meant that the books were at least readable even if we didn’t like the story. They had a reliable standard of craftsmanship. Now, because individual ebooks in KU are covered by my subscription, I’ll give something a go even if I’m not sure whether or not I’ll enjoy it. If it’s self-published, I have no guarantee that the book will be readable, so not finishing books is common for me these days.
Since authors with books in KU get paid by the number of pages read, they lose out when I and other readers stop reading after only a few pages. And I do that often because all too often I find books that indicate in the first 10-20% of the book that I can’t trust the author to write a good story.
Reading requires an investment of time. I don’t want to get half way through or even further into a story before realising that the book isn’t worth finishing, so the author has to convince me in the first few chapters that I can trust that their book will be worth my time. And if I’m considering purchasing a book that isn’t in KU, then they have to convince me in the ‘look inside’ sample that I can trust that they’re an author who can deliver a good book. The following things blow my trust in an author’s craftsmanship. If they can’t get these things together, I know the book won’t be worth my time, and so I stop reading.
5 poor writing practices that make me stop reading
Point of view confusion / head hopping.
Getting your point of view (POV) right is fundamental to writing. Any indication that the author doesn’t understand point of view is a red flag for me. It indicates that the author has insufficient craftsmanship to deliver a good book.
Head hopping is the most obvious indicator that the author doesn’t know what they’re doing. And the guidelines on changing points of view successfully still apply when you’re writing in omniscient POV. Many beginner writers try to write in omniscient POV and fail. It’s a lot harder to do well than you might think, and it’s very easy to end up with some level of point of view confusion / head hopping.
I remove a book from my Kindle at the first sign of head hopping. I hate it. It’s lazy writing and downright annoying because it just doesn’t work. An author who head hops doesn’t get a second chance with me.
Copy errors are distracting at best and confuse the meaning at worst. I can accept a few copy errors in a book if it’s otherwise a good read. Many books – even mainstream ones – have a few copy errors. By few I mean around 5 or so in the whole book. But if there are copy errors in the first few pages, that’s a red flag, and the writing itself had better be excellent to make up for it. Even if everything else is excellent, though, a profusion of copy errors will have me closing the book because it indicates a lack of proofreading and so a lack of professionalism. If the book is not a professional product, it’s not worth my time.
Poor or passive prose
Prose with a lot of empty openers – there is, there are, he was, they were, and so on – and the over use of ‘to be’ verbs – is, are, was, were, and so on – when they could easily be replaced with more active verbs are red flags for me. As are a profusion of adverbs and adjectives, over writing, info dumps, and too many sentences with the same structure. If a book has all or a lot of these poor practices, I’ll stop reading because I know I won’t enjoy reading the prose no matter how good the story is. As an editor, I’m more attuned to these things than the average reader, but though other readers may not know what’s wrong with the writing, they will find it less engaging than books with better prose.
One of my pet hates is the overuse – more than once per 10,000 words – of beginning a sentence with an ‘ing’ ending participle phrase. Example: Running through the trees, she shouted for help. It’s a cumbersome construction and rarely used well even when grammatically correct, and in the chapter on sophistication in the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, Renni Brown & David King, on page 193, say that this construction is a mark of a ‘hack’ writer. I agree with them.
These kinds of poor practices indicate that the author or publisher have not employed a line editor. If an author doesn’t naturally write good prose, a good line editor can solve that problem for them. So don’t skip the line edit!
No sense of where the book is going
Readers want to know within the first 10-15% of a book (20% at the latest) what the book will be about. That means that the plot needs to be established by then. We need to know who the protagonist is, what their aim or task is, and who or what the antagonist who will try to thwart their aim is. At the very least some inciting incident / action for the plot to start rolling has to happen around the 10% mark. If none of that is there, or not enough of it, the book will feel as if it’s wandering, and it won’t have grabbed my attention enough to keep me reading.
Insufficient characterisation or unlikeable characters.
Some books start with a bang of action without introducing the characters first or without including enough characterisation as part of the action. If I don’t know a character, why would I care whether or not a demon will catch them? Maybe all they’re good for is a demon’s meal!
No matter what genre the book is or how it begins in terms of action, I need some indication of the kind of person with whom I’ll be spending all this time. A skilled author can make a character interesting, or at least relatable, in just a few short pages. And if I don’t like the character, then I won’t want to spend time with them. Examples of the kind of characters I close books on are whiney, cruel, self-centred, foulmouthed, or shallow.
Other red flags related to character are unnatural dialogue and characters acting without a clear or believable motivation or not responding in a believable fashion for their character. Like the supposedly intelligent character who makes stupid decisions.
Be a discerning reader
Such poor practices generally reveal themselves to some degree in the first few chapters, if not the first few pages. In order to maintain a high standard of written English in the publishing industry, readers need to be discerning. Don’t read books that are clearly written by authors who haven’t studied their craft or haven’t employed professionals to edit and proofread their book. So keep an eye out for these tells that indicate that you can’t trust the author to deliver a good product.
You wouldn’t employ an untrained electrician, would you?
Learn what to adopt and what to avoid by reading widely
Reading is a professional necessary for editors, publishers and authors. By reading a variety of books, you learn what works and what doesn’t in each genre, what’s selling well and, by reading the reviews, what readers like. And when you have knowledge of the craft of writing, you can pick up why a certain book doesn’t hold your attention. Then make sure you don’t publish a book with the same kind of mistakes.
I wrote my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine in response to the common poor practices I saw in self-published books. The book gives ways to overcome the lack of craftsmanship that mark a book as written by an amateur. So if you digest and apply the points I talk about in that book, you’ll be well on the way towards writing a book that readers will read to the end.
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