Deadly Sin of Writing #7–Treating the Reader Like a Moron

I know I talked about this only a couple of months ago, and yes, you guessed it. This is my 7th Deadly Sin of Writing. As an editor, I found that I kept correcting the same blunders over and over and yeah…over. The mistakes were so universal among new writers that I finally put together my Seven Deadly Sins of Writing so that these issues could be corrected ahead of time. This, then, would leave me more time to comment on the actual story instead of taking valuable time slashing through these common oopses. Feel free to ignore any of the Sins, but I will tell you that editors don’t sit up all night thinking of ways to make your lives miserable….we only stay up until ten doing that😀.

Editors are like engineers. We look at a writer’s  race car (the manuscript) and look for parts that will cause drag, slow down momentum, or cause so much friction that a fiery crash or a dead engine is inevitable. The Seven Deadly Sins are designed to make sure your plot is sleek, fast and unstoppable until the finish line.

I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need a drool cup. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader.

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

Here is a news flash. Not all adverbs are evil…just most of them. One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the character is angry, frustrated, upset. We don’t need to spell it out.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props

You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place.  Hey, a little editor humor🙂. 99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.

“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)

I recently read a non-fiction book where the writer used an exclamation point on every single sentence. I felt like I was learning marketing from Billy Mays. At best, the guy was shouting at me for page after page. At worst, he was monotone, because when we emphasize everything, we emphasize nothing.

Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but, again, very sparingly.

In fiction, bold font and italics are almost never acceptable. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.

Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Sure, if you write non-fiction. In non-fiction we are teaching, so certain key words or points need to stand out.

In the world of fiction?

No bold font. That is the tool of an amateur. And italics? We can use it, just not very often or we run the risk of insulting our reader’s intelligence. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use italics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.

Everyone who has ever argued this point with me was wrong. I don’t say this to sound like a jerk, I say it because if you are using all these props, you don’t need them. Have confidence. Your writing is stronger than you believe. I have read the writing samples sent to me by huffy writers who thought they were robbing the reader of some experience by removing the bold and/or italics, and guess what? I still found the bold and italics annoying and distracting. We readers really are smart. Really. We can figure out what should be stressed. Lose the prose training wheels to race with the big boys and girls.

And as far as italics for internal dialogue? Yes, that is technically correct, but internal dialogue should be used VERY sparingly. Too much internal dialogue, to me the editor, is a major red flag of an author not yet strong enough to maintain POV and keep the flow of narrative. Switching a reader from a third limited perspective to a first-person internal dialogue is jarring. Do you mind being jarred once in a while? No. But every five minutes? It gets tedious.

Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing

Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.

New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, so our lazy nature will try to take shortcuts if we aren’t careful.

Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do.

Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors. Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.

For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.

For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement.  See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into much better writing.

What are your thoughts? Are there some other pet peeves you guys have that I missed? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you? What makes you hurl the book across the room?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

Okay, I am behind on announcing winners due to family drama, so catching up today.

Last Week of August’s Winner–Diana Stevan

First Week of September’s Winner–Donna Amis Davis

Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

Winner of fifteen pages of critique for the month of August is Susie Lindau

Please send 3750 word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of September I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Until next time…

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  1. #1 by Ellis Shuman on September 12, 2011 - 8:46 am

    “Excellent advice,” I said smugly. I am a regular adverb abuser, oh, no need to tell as I just showed that

  2. #2 by Trish Loye Elliott on September 12, 2011 - 8:47 am

    I’m in the middle of revisions right now and I have a tendency to do a couple of the no-nos you’ve mentioned. I like to qualify and too often I tell rather than show. Thanks again for the great tips, Kristen.

  3. #3 by icanwritesomething on September 12, 2011 - 9:02 am

    Good suggestions, i will search for the book in Kathmandu, hope i could get one…🙂

  4. #4 by Graeme Smith on September 12, 2011 - 9:03 am

    Greetings, Lady Kristen

    Yup. It’s, um, me again. I’d say sorry, but I probably wouldn’t mean it🙂.

    All excellent points (not that my saying they’re excellent means anything – after all, I’m an Idiot :-P). However, I’d add ‘but be prepared to re-write for specific circumstances’. For instance, from the real submissions page of a real publishing company (I won’t say which one – that’s not really the point :-P):

    Do not underline but use italics for inner thoughts – ABSOLUTELY NO UNDERSCORES!
    All telepathic communication must contain quotation marks and italicized (quotation marks italicized too)

    So the Rules are good rules, but they may need to be broken, it spceof… spessaf… spissef… if particular circumstances require it. But if you’re going to break them, know why you’re doing it, be confident it’s a good enough reason – and be prepared to pay the price of being wrong😛.

  5. #5 by Emily on September 12, 2011 - 9:13 am

    Kristen,

    Thanks for the advice. I’m in the midst of revising and it helps to have specific issues to watch for!

  6. #6 by loubelcher on September 12, 2011 - 9:21 am

    Amen. I’m so glad you put in the section about exclamation points. I can’t seem to get that across to some folks.

  7. #7 by Catherine Johnson on September 12, 2011 - 9:32 am

    This is a great post to have handy when editing, thanks Kristen.

  8. #8 by Sara Grambusch on September 12, 2011 - 9:39 am

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves when I feel like, as a reader, and I’m getting spoon fed the story. I might be guilty of some of those things as a writer though because I often catch myself thinking “No one is going to understand this” and then modifying something. It’s probably best to give the reader all the credit and then scale things back if it becomes necessary. Something to keep on my mind, great topic!

  9. #9 by Jess Witkins on September 12, 2011 - 9:45 am

    This post is SO helpful. And if I could’ve figured out how to make “so” in bold italics, I would’ve! When I won a 15 page critique from you, it was a wake up call to these issues. And you’re right that it takes away from the story. I didn’t notice it in my own story until you pointed it out, but I see now in my critique group where it does slow the reader down. Once we correct that, we can really focus on the plot and dialogue and enhance the story that way. And I like your simple reminders about show don’t tell and think about actions to define character. Sometimes I get too focused on one little scene and lose the big picture, then I feel like I haven’t given enough detail about a character. Really, this is just such a good post, I’m going to print it and tape it above my desk. Thanks, Kristen!

  10. #10 by susielindau on September 12, 2011 - 9:54 am

    The other thing that makes me put down a book is too much back story or summary. I like to get swept away in action so I don’t put down the book.

  11. #11 by Kathy Bennett on September 12, 2011 - 10:09 am

    Kristen;

    Great post. You’ve mentioned some good things to watch for as I revise my latest manuscript.

  12. #12 by Travis McDougald on September 12, 2011 - 10:42 am

    I loved this. Thank you. Actually helped me see some mistakes in my works.

  13. #13 by ramblingsfromtheleft on September 12, 2011 - 10:44 am

    Thanks for a great post. As always your sage advise helps to guide us through the maze of possible “newbie” habits. Maybe I read it here, but whoever said, write one million words hit it spot on. After the first million, it’s good for us to go back to those first 20-100K words and see how we have already begun to improve. Nothing teaches us better than practice. Loved this🙂

  14. #14 by Jennifer on September 12, 2011 - 10:58 am

    Great post, Kristen. Even when I’ve revised and revised and revised, it still helps to go through it again and search for these specific things. Look for a blog link from me!

  15. #15 by Anne R. Allen on September 12, 2011 - 11:04 am

    Another great post. I think it’s good to remember that the first draft is for the writer–getting to know the characters and the story–and the revisions are for the reader. Some newbies forget there might be a reader out there, and it’s not that reader’s job to admire the writer. It’s the writer’s job to please the reader.

    • #16 by Marion Spicher on September 13, 2011 - 2:13 pm

      Great statement: “the first draft is for the writer–getting to know the characters and the story–and the revisions are for the reader.” My first drafts contain many of the “no-no’s” mentioned in Kristen’s blog, and I hope to catch them during the third or fourth revision after the story plot/conflict/ etc. is revised/arranged properly. I went to your blog, and will subscribe.

      • #17 by Anne R. Allen on September 13, 2011 - 2:16 pm

        Thanks, Marion. Glad you came over to my blog!

  16. #18 by MGalloway on September 12, 2011 - 11:14 am

    One point about the whole show don’t tell issue…if you go back and read certain books from 40-50 years ago, you can find examples of where telling was used more often…even by some well known writers. Even some older tv shows and movie trailers used a telling “narrator”. Times have changed, of course, but this needs to be kept in mind when reading some books from that era.

  17. #19 by lanceschaubert on September 12, 2011 - 11:39 am

    Many writers don’t realize that there are readers out there as smart as them.

    • #20 by Graeme Smith on September 12, 2011 - 11:51 am

      Oh, I hope they’re smarter than I am. Heck, there are _rocks_ smarter than I am😛.

  18. #21 by August McLaughlin on September 12, 2011 - 11:40 am

    Ooh… Fantastic post. I loathe the “jumping cats” — events inserted for shock value alone…and multiple type-os in anything published.

    I find books that preach about the author’s beliefs or go on and on about research they’ve conducted bothersome. I heard an author say recently that great books teach about the characters; not-so-great books teach about the author.😉 It’s tempting to do, of course, like many “sins.’

    Thanks for the terrific post, Kirsten!

  19. #22 by August McLaughlin on September 12, 2011 - 11:41 am

    Agh, very bad, type-o! KRISTEN.😉

  20. #23 by Jill Barville (@JillBarville) on September 12, 2011 - 11:42 am

    Many of these mistakes are like the overacting you see in a B movie. I don’t want to make the reader roll her eyes, so these are going in to revision “to do” list.

  21. #24 by Jessica O'Neal on September 12, 2011 - 11:53 am

    Another great post. These “Deadly Sins” blogs have been incredibly helpful and I seem to be guilty of most if not all of them at some point in time. Lots of work for ahead, but I’d rather get as much taken care of myself before my manuscript goes into the hands of someone important. Thanks!

  22. #25 by Paige Kellerman on September 12, 2011 - 1:32 pm

    I used “whispered quietly” today…LOL I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t said anything in this post. Lord help me…haha

  23. #26 by Kate Larkindale on September 12, 2011 - 1:51 pm

    I’m a serial ellipses abuser…. Yeah, it’s a problem….

  24. #27 by Lisa notes... on September 12, 2011 - 2:12 pm

    So I’ve learned to go easier on exclamation points, but I’m still guilty on using an ellipsis way too often…see? And emoticons? Can we eliminate these too?🙂

    Because I wrote all non-fiction, I’ll hang on to my italics and bold font, but I’ll try to use them more sparingly nonetheless. Very helpful tips. Thanks.

  25. #28 by katewoodauthor on September 12, 2011 - 2:16 pm

    Excellent advice, as always. Keep the deadly sins comin’…I’m takin’ notes😉

  26. #29 by rjlacko on September 12, 2011 - 2:34 pm

    Thanks Kristen!! I absolutely struggle with the qualifying offense. I’ve posted highlights from your post and a link back to your blog, and even mentioned your fabulous books. (Hmm, is someone eager to have her pages reviewed?)🙂
    http://rebeccalacko.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/do-i-treat-my-reader-like-a-moron-editing-fiction-for-intelligent-readers/

  27. #30 by Amy Kennedy on September 12, 2011 - 3:03 pm

    Guess who’s exclaiming D’oh! now? Me. Dang. I use italics…a lot. Elipses also.

    I thought I was conveying how someone felt by using dialogue and physical cues — now I’m being told: deeper POV. I think I’m confusing Deep POV with internal thoughts. Thoughts?

  28. #31 by Angela Wallace on September 12, 2011 - 3:35 pm

    It’s always good to be reminded of these. I have a hand-written check-list of stuff like this to look for once I reach the editing phase.

  29. #32 by Niki Chanel on September 12, 2011 - 4:53 pm

    I worked so hard in the beginning on showing and not telling, that my stories went back to being scripts – all dialogue. I feel better about my work now, but could use a refresher course. Could you expound a bit on the difference(s) between narrative and telling?

  30. #33 by educlaytion on September 12, 2011 - 6:39 pm

    Sentence that instantly turned me into Beavis & Butthead:

    “People who lie often rub a body part…”

    My defense is that it’s late in the day and I’ve been lecturing for hours. I’m allowed to have the intellect of a 14 year old for a minute or two. Good advice as always.

  31. #34 by Kathryn Roberts on September 12, 2011 - 8:10 pm

    This is always a great reminder. Actually, I’m quite proud of how far I’ve come. I committed all of these mistakes in the beginning and after five years of nearly nonstop work, I’m just about there. =) I love your blog. It’s very helpful, informative and I never tire of listening to you…type =).

  32. #35 by Alexander Bennon (@AlexanderBennon) on September 12, 2011 - 8:55 pm

    One of my favorites is “He nodded his head in agreement.” Why else do you nod your head after someone says something? I see this in published books, and I’m surprised the editors let the authors get away with it.

    Great suggestion to make a list of various body language for a given mood. I tend to get stuck using the same types of body language and need to branch out.

  33. #36 by Tameri Etherton on September 12, 2011 - 9:50 pm

    I need a 12 step program to quit exclamation points. Not in my novel, but in my blogs, posts on FB, Twitter. Yeah, I’m a heavy abuser.

    Great points, Kristen. It is so nice to be reminded of what we should look for while revising.

    Look at that, not a single exclamation point. There’s hope for me yet.

  34. #37 by lynnkelleyauthor on September 12, 2011 - 9:52 pm

    Great info. Am passing this on. Thank you!

  35. #38 by Leanne Shirtliffe on September 12, 2011 - 11:02 pm

    Yes! Italics are my pet peeve. And you know two writers who are very guilty of them? Dan Brown and John Irving. I especially love the latter, but I want to say, “John, honey, I’m smart. Trust that I’ll put the emphasis where it needs to be. Plus, your writing’s strong enough without them.” But that just makes me sound like a creepy fan.

    Great post, as always!🙂

  36. #39 by Emberchyld (Carli) on September 13, 2011 - 6:13 am

    Thank you for the great advice! As an engineer by trade, I LOVE the engineer analogy.

    I’m currently working on a YA paranormal and I’m finding that the hardest part of the entire process is explaining the mythology without bogging down bogging down the plot. I’m trying to avoid long pages of exposition and aiming for more show instead of tell, but do you have any advice on that front?

    Thanks!

  37. #40 by Andy Penpraze on September 13, 2011 - 7:25 am

    Thanks again Kristen for some excellent advise. I’m editing my final draft presently and have noticed so much “telling” rather than “showing” in my prose. It’s an easy trap to fall into and makes for slow editing. Well worth it in the long run though.

  38. #41 by Andy Penpraze on September 13, 2011 - 7:25 am

    And of course I know how to spell the world “advice”. Damned typos…

  39. #42 by Jonnie Owens on September 13, 2011 - 8:28 am

    Thanks for the suggestion to buy a book on body language. I had never thought of that even as I struggle to show not tell.

  40. #43 by Marion Spicher on September 13, 2011 - 1:59 pm

    Non specific adjectives. Like “little.” Anything the reader has to qualify pulls them out of the story, and doesn’t paint a true picture.

    Another example that taught me to be careful with adjectives. My daughter read my short story and said, “Lose the adjectives.” What? No adverbs, and now no adjectives either? But after two deep breaths, I tried it. Imagine my surprise when instead of describing a tree house with a short ceiling, I wrote “The man hunched, not wanting to dislodge the rain proof tarp draped over the branch above, balanced on one leg, then the other, to slip his feet into the pant legs.”

    The reader gets the picture of a low ceiling in a tree house, amidst the action of his getting dressed.

    Instructive post, Kristen. Thanks for the reminders and the examples.

  41. #44 by Robyn on September 14, 2011 - 10:48 am

    Thanks for the great advice! I just skipped to the end of a book after the second use of a terrible metaphor.

  42. #45 by authorguy on September 14, 2011 - 12:02 pm

    All good advice, stuff to try to avoid. Most of the time. There are times when this stuff can be done but it’s best to have a reflex that you need a good reason to overcome. My problem is that I usually treat the reader as too smart, and leave out connections that are logically inferable from what I said. I was told to make the connections more obvious.

    I did have one case where I used bold font. A god was ‘speaking’ to a woman more-or-less telepathically.

    “Around them, the city began to stir, the tiny noises of new life ringing loud in their ears.
    FENITA.
    The tiny noises blanked out instantly, the voice in her head pushing out mere sound. ”

    And all caps in italics, too.

  43. #46 by Chad Swayden on September 16, 2011 - 9:08 pm

    Great post! Especially liked the sin of italics. Thank goodness I’ve never used bold but as I’m editing my novel I can think of plenty of times where I’ve used italics. oops. And I thought I was being clever. It’s made me think about the scene and what I can do to strengthen it. Or that it’s good enough, I just don’t need the gimmicks. Thanks for writing this and giving us insight to better our writing. Maybe correcting those sins is the thing that might get us over the hump and into being published.

  44. #47 by Jolyse Barnett on September 17, 2011 - 4:25 pm

    Thanks for the reminders, Kristen. I’m happy the family drama has settled.

  45. #48 by Marilag Lubag on September 18, 2011 - 10:11 pm

    Agreed for the most part… If we do it correctly, it would save us pages of paper we don’t have to print.🙂 I’m also thinking that part of the problem are the English lit classes (at least in my case). After all, reading those old books, all I wanted was to ask the author why not to deliberately write it? He or she is making my head hurt.

  46. #49 by Clare Wilson on September 21, 2011 - 4:01 am

    I finally got round to reading this and found it extremely helpful! (sorry, thought it would be funny to have the exclamation mark.

    It did make me worry about some previous work, but I think it will be extremely helpful going forward.

    X

  47. #50 by Mick Dawson on November 4, 2011 - 8:58 pm

    I’ve discovered in general it’s a mistake to treat the reader like they’re intelligent. In the early days I overexplained everything. The reader understood, but then I was hit with “show, not tell.”
    Over a period of time I learned and applied the principles you wrote about on this page. Then I got, “I don’t understand.” Questions were asked where I could cut, paste and send back entire explanatory paragraphs in the story to answer those questions.
    Is it the fault of the reader for skipping the information, or is it possible to make it even clearer without reverting to “telling” a story?

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