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What makes us grimace and put down a book, never to pick it up again? What annoys us so much we stick it in the corner of a shelf to gather dust for years before at last deciding to donate it to the charity shop? I decided to do a bit of research.
I wrote to book reviewers and undertook polls on a number of Facebook groups: AmWritingFantasy (693 members), Fantasy Writers Support Group (5,447 members), The Phoenix Quill (846 members), and Writing Bad (8,000 members). The results are pretty interesting and hopefully will be of some use to writers.
This article will first look at what the book reviewers say, then take a look at the poll results before reflecting on what they show with reference to a few voter comments.
Views of book reviewers
A million thanks to the bloggers who kindly responded to my query. I appreciate you’re very busy and in taking the time to respond you’ve helped give this research more credibility.
For transparency’s sake this is the question I put to them:
“I’m just after a short paragraph explaining what your biggest pet peeve is when it comes to books. What makes you put down a book and banish it to the pits of hell?”
Here are their answers.
What really makes me want to throw a book I’m reading out the window is when the pacing is slow. Books need action to draw the readers in and make them invested in the story. When the plot is so boring that, I cannot even read for longer than a page, that is when I really feel like returning the book to my bookshelf where it will likely collect dust and never be thought of again. I recently DNF’d a book that had a scattered plot without a clear focus. This also attributes to the plot being mind-numbing and difficult to read. While a book’s plot does not need to be carved in stone, it helps if it includes interesting plot points that the readers know will be solved later in the story. If all the protagonist is doing is their normal day-to-day activities, it is hard for me to find a reason to keep reading. Thankfully, I rarely find books to be so boring that I want to DNF it, so I think most authors are able to make their stories thrilling enough for me to keep reading.
The number one reason why I stop reading a book is the writing. I can read anything that’s well written, be it nonfiction about Nebraska or a YA romantic fantasy. The writing needs to be engaging. I’m not just talking about having A+ grammar and punctuation, I’m talking style. I’ll give you the short version (bullet points!) of my turn-offs when it comes to writing: 1) stupid dialog 2) stage-direction narration 3) boring, repetitive sentence structure 4) purple prose that doesn’t go anywhere or adds anything 5) using big words where smaller words would have sufficed and 6) telling, not showing.
Thankfully I haven’t had to give up on many books. Some are obviously more memorable than others, but I generally enjoy them at the time. Books I haven’t got on with tend not to flow well for me. If it’s too much like hard work trying to keep track of everything and everyone I will lose interest. I always worry that there’s something I’m missing though, especially if it’s a book most people have loved. Characters can sometimes be a turn off too. Not necessarily unlikeable characters, because they can be interesting, but characters I just don’t gel with at all for whatever reason. If they irritate me I might not care what happens to them and lose interest in their story. Then again, some get under your skin, however irritating, and make their stories all the more compelling. It really does vary. Character and place names which are hard to pronounce can be off-putting too, sometimes. If I find myself not really bothered about reading that next chapter then I know a book isn’t working for me and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why. Life is too short though and my TBR list is way too long to spend time reading something I’m not enjoying. There’s always an element of guilt though as I know how much hard work goes into writing, but it would be a boring world if we all loved the same things.
Books provide me a secret escapade when I really need a break from reality. But that was before. Now, I can’t go without a book even for a day. And sleeping with a book by my bedside is a must, it doesn’t matter if I don’t read, it just has to be there.
So when it comes to my biggest pet peeve concerning books, I must admit I really hate a poorly written one, and by that I not only refer to the writing style, but also the various proofreading and editing errors that surface every now and then. That just makes me cringe and I feel like shutting the book for good.
Jason P. Crawford (Beyond the Curtain of Reality)
The main thing that makes me banish a book is a clear lack of story flow. This can come in a few forms – if the prose is choppy and ridden with grammar errors, then I can’t keep reading; if the writer drops a huge block of exposition in my lap right off the bat, then I’m going to put it down. I wouldn’t consider myself a picky reader, but if I can’t immerse myself in your story because your errors or style keep me out of it, then I’m not going to give it my time.
The poll results
At 14,986 the sample size was pretty big. I chose the above-listed groups because they have the most active members.
Polls were open for a week. It’s hard to give a definite figure on how many people took part—people could vote more than once and Facebook doesn’t give much analysis. Voters were allowed to propose their own reasons as well as voting for existing ones. In all, thirty-five different reasons were put forward, some of which overlap.
|Confusing or unclear plot||134|
|Too much info-dumping||100|
|Slow plot/nothing to keep you invested||82|
|Poor grammar/spelling, bad sentence structure||66|
|Sunshine, rainbows, and evil villains who are evil because
They are evil. Oh, and the good guys inevitably win because they’re good
|Annoying or stupid protagonist||40|
|Poor or weak hook||23|
|Telling not showing||22|
|You must believe in god/Allah/FSM||19|
|Romanticised abuse, mental illness, crimes, etc.||17|
|Lack of plot development||15|
|Don’t hurt my hero!||13|
|A quick dive to the bottom of the cliché barrel||13|
|Failing to adhere to rules of the world||10|
|Lack of believability||10|
|Not enough description||7|
|Mary Sue/Garry Stu main characters||4|
|Slow or boring||3|
|Written like Ernest Hemingway||2|
|Interpreting the Hero’s Journey literally||2|
|Not the ending I wanted||2|
|Not written like Ernest Hemingway||1|
|Writing minorities and The Other poorly||1|
|Characters used as a plot device||1|
And in graph form, because what’s a research article without a graph?
What do the results tell us?
An important thing to remember is that reading is subjective. One person may laud something another loathes. To quote Kerry Parsons above, “it would be a boring world if we all loved the same things.”
But a few consistent trends have arisen and it’s something worth paying attention to. Strong characters and plot make the reader keep turning the page. This is something I agree with entirely. The reason I kept on reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind was that I liked Kvothe so much. As one voter commented:
“Plot and characters are everything. If I don’t care what happens to the characters and I have no idea what going on because someone is piling on foreshadowing but solving nothing, it’s unreadable.”
Too much exposition, i.e. the info dump, is another big problem for readers. This is something I discussed back in January with fantasy author Jesper Schmidt of AmWritingFantasy.com. We had a chat about a rising trend of writers taking a minimalist approach to world-building, which I suggested may be the result of complaints of too much detail being revealed about worlds, invariably leading to not-so-sexy info dumps. Here’s what the voters had to say:
“Books traditionally published have a hard time gripping me when there’s a lot of info dumping, the exposition is too flowery/unnecessary.”
“Some things, like info dumps or bad sentence structures, usually show themselves on page 1, so if I see a lot of those I will put down a book almost immediately”
An unedited manuscript is another big reason for people putting down books. Jason P. Crawford said above: “If the prose is choppy and ridden with grammar errors, then I can’t keep reading.” But interestingly readers do forgive the odd error provided the story has other strengths, as these comments from voters suggest:
“Give me phenomenal characters and most everything else is forgivable.”
“Make the first chapter as perfect as possible so all I see is the wonderful story and characters, then I will be forgiving of errors later.”
“I can deal with unedited provided the story is actually still strong.”
This is not an excuse to skip or rush editing. It’s the most important aspect of the writing process, for me anyway. I understand why writers can get impatient. You’ve finished your story and just want to get it out to the world. But would a painter sell a half-finished painting? Probably not, unless they’re trying to pass it off as modern art.
I’d like to thank everyone who took part in this little research exercise, from bloggers to voters. Your contributions have helped to give it some credibility and hopefully, made it a useful source of information for writers.