What Readers Don’t Like, and Maybe Why

Readers of this blog must know by now that I can’t resist questioning anything that looks like a writing rule. I’ve read, and quibbled with, all kinds of “thou shalt nots,” from plot structure to specific words. The rationale is usually that these things alienate readers and make them stop reading a story, or prevent them from starting.

But here’s an idea: how about asking readers what they don’t like? That was the topic in a recent post on writer Pete Springer’s blog entitled My Pet Peeves as a Reader. All writers are also readers (or should be). A lot of writers read that post and commented. (By the way, the post also includes a lively discussion about sunflower seeds.)

As I read them, the top three peeves in Pete’s post and the comments are:

  • Rushed or otherwise unsatisfying endings
  • Wordiness, meaning either too much description or too many fancy/obscure words
  • Typos and errors

I wondered why these were the most often mentioned. Would this list be any different if the commenters weren’t mostly writers? I certainly don’t have any statistical data about this. The following are just my personal off-the-cuff thoughts.

  • Most people watch filmed stories of one sort or another; books have to compete with their instantaneous visual effects. Slowness is bad.
  • It takes more mental effort to read a book, i.e., to create a mind-movie, than to absorb a pre-made story, so books have to make that effort worthwhile with an ending that satisfies.
  • Writers spend a lot of time and effort finding typos and errors in their own works, so are likely to notice them in others’ writings. If there are enough of them to be irritating, that’s often a DNF.
  • So many books! Everyone’s TBR pile (physical or virtual) is bursting at the seams. This overabundance has lessened the differences between casual readers and professional ones (agents and editors), whose default approach to a piece of writing is rejection. “Give me a reason to keep reading this.” Such an outlook leads to a low tolerance for things like cliches, repetitiousness, and typos. Writers are especially apt to notice these imperfections because they are hyper-aware of them in their own writing.

Despite all this, the primary audience of many indie authors is other writers. Which is both a good thing and a bit ironic.

Writers, do you consider what your fellow writers might think of your work in progress? Do you modify your writing accordingly?

Featured image from Pexels

97 comments

  1. Many thanks for this interesting post, Audrey. I must confess to sharing your scepticism as regards absolute writing rules. For example, we are told to “show not tell”. Whilst this rule has something to be said in its favour, I have read well written stories where there are elements of showing and have greatly enjoyed them. I am sure that your average reader does not comb through the book they are reading looking for examples of showing as opposed to telling.

    As regards my own writing, as a poet, I write about what interests me and/or inspires me. Of course its wonderful to receive compliments from my readers, but any writer whose primary motivation in writing is to receive approbation will, in many instances be disappointed as there will be compliments and criticisms, that is the nature of putting one’s work out there.

    You hear of students doing a degree they find uninteresting (in extreme cases even hate) because they believe it will enable them to obtain a high paying job. I studied the degree which interested me (history and politics) rather than one which could (in theory at least) have raised my earning potential. I follow the same practice when composing my poetry.

    Best wishes. Kevin

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It occurs to me that telling done well equals showing.
      People who study an uncongenial field sometimes do it at the urging of well intentioned parents. Creativity is often a matter of push and pull, both external and internal.
      Thanks for your comments, Kevin!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks, Audrey. I think as both a writer and a reader my pet bug-bears are pace (lack of), waffle, and the use of obscure words when simple ones will do, and too many typos – all the things I’m probably guilty of myself, plus a lot more besides. I do try to bear the pet hates of others in mind when writing, especially when editing beyond the first draft. But go with my instinct as to whether I think they’re reasonable or not, otherwise I suppose we’d all begin to sound alike, and we should have some room to air our idiosyncrasies.

    Enjoyed that linked piece, by the way, and the notes on sunflowers.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. You pose an interesting question, Audrey. I think of fellow writers when I’m writing something more literary. But if I’m writing something silly or gory, I think of (okay, don’t laugh) people with cell phones in their hands and short attention spans.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. No, I don’t think of what readers might think when I write and modify my writing accordingly. I have an automatic voice in my head that tells me:

    -This is cheesy. (Usualy dialog)
    -This is boring. (Usually character to-ing and fro-ing from place to place.)
    -This has nothing to do with the story. (Usually based on a cool bit of historical research.)
    -This is never gonna fly. (Usually a plot point.)

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Couldn’t resist adding my 2cents worth to this. Those of us from an, ahem, earlier generation probably read a great many different kinds of fiction. All that reading would have built up an unconscious feel for what works and what doesn’t. I suspect that’s why we resist the ‘rules’ so much. They’re absolutes whereas stories, and readers, aren’t.
      Doesn’t mean we get the balance right, but we can usually tell when we don’t. As for writing with others in mind, wanting the reader to have a pleasurable experience is one thing, writing to a formula is something else entirely.
      The trick is to find those readers who ‘feel’ much the way we do. Confession: I have no idea how you do that; I write and cross my fingers. :/

      Liked by 2 people

      1. What I find particularly interesting/confounding about the whole absolute rules issue is that when I majored in writing fiction in college, our prof told us the exact opposite. A piece of fiction can break with all the “rules”–and it works anyway.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. -grin- greater than the sum of its parts. πŸ˜€
          I honestly don’t understand why it’s okay for painters to try something new, to step away from the tried-and-tested, but writers must toe the line?
          I think the current obsession with ‘rules’ all boils down to one simple question: what makes a best seller?
          I’m not saying I wouldn’t LOVE to write a best seller. Of course I would. Having some spare cash would be really nice, but… in 20 years time, AI will be writing the best sellers based on what’s worked for XXX demographic in YYY genres.
          I want to write books that will be remembered because they’re not formulaic. -sigh- I’d just like to write books that are /remembered/.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. I’ll bet few readers finish a book thinking “Yep, that one followed all the rules.” πŸ˜ƒ
            My theory is these “rules” come mainly from freelance editors and book coaches calling attention to their skills and services by blogging, and/or people who must read a lot of writing submissions and are therefore exposed to a high volume of writers’ mannerisms that become irritating. Nothing wrong with any of that, but when the result is prohibitions on using certain words (as opposed to maybe seeing some words as signals of potential problems), I think they’re less than helpful.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I also don’t think about what readers — much less readers who are writers — want when writing my stories. I write the story the way I would want to read the story in the hope that there are readers with similar tastes. I must admit, however, that my last three books, and the one I’m struggling with now, are all set in the same “universe” as my most popular book. I’ve gotten a little more conscious of what sells, though its more for the convenience of re-using my previous work, especially when new and original ideas for stories are hard to come by these days.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Your off-the-cuff thoughts are insightful, Audrey. I still consider myself a relative newbie to writing, but I’m finally starting to lose that steady voice of self-doubt that questions my writing abilities. (Now, it only appears occasionally.😊) We writer types do like to beat ourselves up.

    Of all the things I’ve done to become more proficient in writing in the last three years, the most important is getting weekly feedback from my critique group. I write a chapter of my work in progress to bring each week for immediate feedback, so I think about them when I’m writing. Earning their approval is always in the back of my mind. I’ve decided that’s a good thing, though, as it makes me more conscientious about writing a solid chapter.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I am without a critique group now, but I was part of one for years. I wrote one of my novels the way you describe–a piece for every meeting, except we met only once a month. It kept me motivated to produce that new piece of writing in a fit state to be seen by others. I think it’s important to test new writing by running it past others before finalizing and publishing.
      Thanks for contributing your thoughts, Pete!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Audrey, I read Pete’s post and found his dislikes very interesting. They are not the same things that put me off a book. Typos and those sorts of errors occur in all written work and they only bother me if there are a lot of them. I can tolerate a reasonable number. I like classic books and they are often very descriptive so point 2 is fine for me too. I don’t like poor endings, and I especially do not like dullness or a storyline that has been done many times and this is just a slightly different version. I like uniqueness and I treasure that above everything else.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes, retreads of well-worn themes are all too common. Publishers seem to prefer them, up to a point. I remember your comment on Pete’s post about the revelation of the horror in Stephen King’s It being a disappointment. I agree, although getting to that point was quite interesting. I was similarly disappointed by the ending of his Revival, which involved giant ants, I believe.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha, yes, the ants were also a disappointment. IT is one of my favourites and King did redeem himself with the merging of the minds between Bill and the alien when they go backwards in time for the duration of the creatures life. But the spider and its eggs persona just didn’t do it for me [no pun intended]. The Shining, Dead Zone, and Salem’s Lot had brilliant endings, as did Carrie and Firestarter. I guess you can’t win them all.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I am so conflicted when it comes to King’s writing. I still think his scifi short stories are among the best ever written, and Dolores Claiborne is one of the best females ever written by a male writer, but…his horror? Meh. I’m not a big fan of horror, and while I thought the early ones broke new ground, the later ones started to feel ‘same old, same old’. Like you, Robbie, part of the ‘more’ I look for is innovation.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. My faves among King’s books are Pet Sematary and Gerald’s Game. The former because of the interweaving of supernatural horror with human tragedy, and the latter because of the desperate situation he puts his m.c. into. There’s a not altogether apt link with Dolores Claiborne (who is, like you say, a great female character). And some of his short stories are pretty good.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. One comment I’ve heard a few times from agents is that they’re looking for things that are “fresh,” although I think their primary question is, “Will this sell?”. Maybe my perspective will change, but I’m going to write about the things that matter to me. My wife and I planned for retirement, so I’m not counting on any minimal income I might make.

      Liked by 5 people

  8. I’ve wondered how many readers are the same as I. That is: the older I get, the more my attention span shrinks. Over the last five or more years, for that reason, I’ve stuck to short books (under 300 pages. And under 250 as often as possible).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It seems both older and younger people have short attention spans. That could be why short fiction such as novellas are becoming more popular.
      I think there’s still a place for longer works, but authors have to avoid sections in which readers feel bogged down, or, to put it bluntly, bored.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I rely on my critique group of 3 others to help me figure out the things they wish, as readers, were fleshed out a little more or could be chopped. Oddly, they are all experienced writers, but none of them write in the urban fantasy genre I’m currently working on. I chose to work with them because I know they don’t hold back on their comments. It’s been an invaluable experience. I will send it to beta readers as well when ready. I also am writing shorter chapters not only because it works for the story but because it suits those who read on their phones while waiting in lines or taking transit, etc. much better than longer chapter. Attention spans do seem to be shortening!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. All valid points, Debra. Critique groups and beta readers are essential, especially when a writer is taking a new approach. And maybe shorter chapters work better for people who read on phones. I have to admit I’ve never done that. A tablet is as close as I’ve come, and find it annoying that it needs frequent recharging when used as a reading device.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. None of the people in my critique group are writing for my audience (middle-grade), but I haven’t found that a problem. I am looking for others connected with my genre in my geographical area. Everyone but one in our five-member group is retired. That allows us to get together regularly. The downside about being (ahem) older is somebody’s next operation for a hip or knee replacement is never too far off.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Ah, sounds like a great group! We meet on Zoom once a week, but we’ve all worked together in person, before COVID. I really like the perspective from people who don’t normally write in my genre. The jargon I assume fantasy readers know isn’t clear to those new to the genre, so it’s really helpful when they ask what something means or refers to.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I understand completely. One of the most helpful things for me is things that seem evident in my head may not be apparent to the reader. I’ve got some teen slang in my work in progress that might not be as obvious to some. Slang changes all the time, so I’ve been removing a fair amount, but I want my kids to sound like young teens instead of adults.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Yes, slang can be problematic. If it’s from right now, no one but kids may ‘get’ it (which is sort of the point), but if it’s old slang from the ’60s, for example, younger people won’t recognize it.

            Like

  10. Failure to immerse.

    Anything that stops that immersion process will jar the reader out of the story.

    Imagine entering a pond to swim…
    You judge the setting, the banks, the sandy/muddy shore, you strip to your swimsuit and…
    You dip a toe, hmm, feels OK.
    You walk to your ankles, not too cool, not too warm.
    Your knees, you don’t feel things squirming, or bumping your calves. Good.
    Your waist, your neck and you push off into deeper water. Ah, immersion.

    Oof! What was that? Something sharp? Slimy? Did you hear a splash in the cattails? See a shadow? That doesn’t smell right. Is that a leech? That green doesn’t look right. Is that signs of flesh-eating bacteria? Snapping turtles? Screw This. I’m leaving!

    Sure, typos, misspellings, formatting issues will jerk us out of our revelry. But so will cliche’s, sameness, copy-tropes, mundane settings, dream-stories, alarm-clock starts, authorial-speak, too much description, disingenuous dialog, funky tags, Victoria-entries, prologues, meme-heavy mentions, name-dropping… Sheesh! All of this will drive me to run from the water’s edge.

    Shoulder deep, and you feel a bump, “But the water’s so perfect, and the birds and damselflies so acrobatic… I’ll keep going.”

    Bump, bump, bump? Would you stay to identify the source?

    Liked by 5 people

  11. No, I don’t worry (any more!) about what other writers might think of my work. I used to belong to a critique group and it was educational. But one thing I learned was that writers are just like readers — they all have their likes and dislikes. I write about subjects that interest ME, not what some “experts” say people want to read, because there’s no way an expert can know that. But I do try to delete unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs. I go overboard in getting rid of typos, and I prefer short words to long ones.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Too many, initially incomprehensible, words stick in the throat – although a few are good to keep you on your toes. Too many exclamation marks seem to annoy a lot of people, although I insist on a few! Drawn out explanations stop the natural flow and some writers over-do weather descriptions. Thank you Audrey. I always worry as to whether I have the balance of action and description spot on!.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, it’s definitely a balancing act, Joy. Exclamation points have their place; emphatic declarations look wrong without them. It’s probably better to under-do description, unless one has a natural tendency to sparse writing, in which case a bit more might be in order.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I use exclamation points, though I’ve heard the same criticism, Joy. I don’t understand writers using a different amount of exclamation points at the end of their sentences. One fellow I know (a great writer in many other ways) sometimes uses one, two, or three. That strikes me as unusual as I’ve always assumed one was plenty.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Typos and cliches, including plot cliches, turn me off. It is hard to catch them all if you’re an indie writer and don’t have the budget for an editor though. You can get friends to read over, but a lot of people are grammatically illiterate these days. In which case…why should it matter?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Someone else mentioned the same plot elements being used over and over again. “Plot cliche” is a good term for that. I suspect it comes down to the view that if something sells, give ’em more of it.
      That’s an interesting observation, about whether ignorance of grammar makes it unimportant. That might explain positive reviews for badly written books. Evolution or devolution?
      Thanks for your comments!

      Like

  14. There is an elephant in the room, and it’s called ‘Generation’. Most of the readers who like my work seem to be from my generation. I won’t call us old, but I will say that we have different expectations when it comes to fiction.

    A twenty-something may want a quick read with pared down prose that fits in with their hectic life style. I like the idea of prose that does the job without intruding into the story, but I also want something more – I want 3D characters, I want politics, I want philosophy, I want great world building, I want moral and ethical dilemmas. I want sentences that stop me in my tracks because they’re so beautiful. I want to stay up late reading because I can’t pull myself from the world the writer has created.

    I’d like to think that everyone wants books like that, but the ranks on Amazon tell a different story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well said, Meeks! That’s the kind of writing I look for and try to create. I hope there’s enough of it around to inspire new writers down the road. Because I think we learn to write by absorbing excellent writing, not from how-to books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. And you do. I read a lot, a /lot/, and I tend to judge a book by its longevity – the longer I remember it, the better it is. πŸ˜€ I still remember all of the Herbert West books. Not the names. I’m terrible with names, but the story and the /people/, they’ve stayed with me. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting. I love playing around with graphics [strictly amateur], and I find that typos literally jump off the page at me. I’ve read somewhere that once we’re good at reading, we see shapes instead of words. Perhaps typos present a different shape to our eyes. Sorry, that went off at a bit of a tangent. lol

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Now I’m an artist myself, I’m nearly completely bind to typos — perhaps because I do think I read the shapes of words rather than note the individual letters that make them up. And I’m not up to speed on phonics, so “where” and “were” are similar looking enough to pass for the word I expect to find. When writing, I’m writing the sound of the word in my head, so that I often find that I’ll type the wrong version of the word — brake vs break – even if I know the correct one. On the plus side, I don’t get annoyed by typos, yours or mine:)

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Spelling is complicated. There’s the brain, the fingers, and of course the sometimes illogical quirks of the English language. I’m a pretty good speller and not a bad typist, but I often type “it’s” instead of “its,” even though I know the difference. I think it’s a muscle memory thing that overrides the brain.
          When you think about it, it’s a miracle that we writers manage to produce read-worthy books at all!

          Like

        2. Hmm…do you paint? I’m wondering whether the form of your art influences the way your visual system works? I don’t paint or draw. I work digitally with vector graphics, way down to the pixel level. Maybe that’s why I ‘see’ small visual details. lol And typos do bother me. πŸ˜€

          Liked by 1 person

              1. Something about whether there’s a connection between a person’s artistic pursuits and their perception of typos. I think it would be tough to investigate it with scientific rigor.

                Like

            1. Ah hah! Thanks for confirming that. I’m really chuffed to have picked it. Doesn’t confirm my theory, but at least it allows for the possibility. πŸ˜€
              I love discussions like these. Please feel free to pop in whenever something pique’s your interest.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I’d say that the connection is how well one can memorize by rote. I’ve never been good at that type of learning. I’ve always been terrible at spelling. And the “rules” of the English language have no internal logic that isn’t avolated on an apparent whim — but don’t you dare to do so — so it must be learned by rote as well.

                Liked by 2 people

              2. Oh dear…we could get into a good old barny over this one! As a teacher I’d like to point out that the vast majority of the language is ‘regular’. Yes, there are irregularities, but they’re not as bad as all that. Perhaps we should just agree to disagree. πŸ˜€

                Liked by 1 person

  15. Subject matter. I can forgive a vast number of perceived failings, since I commit most of them. If the words ‘serial killer’ appear, the book disappears due to my personal loathing of the real life equivalents. There are others but that would be clogging up this post with a rant on my own views on life…that an’t fair on any readers of this post.
    As for for spulling mistuks this is certainly an indie problum, in books whych go through the commercail process these ar ironed or purged out or should bee.
    When referring to other shortcomings…One person’s shortcomings is another person’s style?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know what you mean by subject matter. At least we can exercise choice as readers. Typos are irritating, and after a certain number indicate ignorance or sloppiness. But there is a vast range of stylistic preferences. Thanks for your astute observations, Roger!

      Liked by 1 person

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