Rules schmoolze, readers don’t care, so why should you?

“Rules, rules, rules! Why should I care so much about POV switches and using too many adjectives and adverbs? The average reader will never notice! You’re simply too picky.”

That was an author’s reply to a critique I’d included with a rejection. She’s right –  I am indeed picky. And she’s also half-right about the fact that readers may not notice. But here is why she’s mostly wrong.

Who Is Gonna Read Your Book?

The problem with this author’s comment is her lack of vision. She assumes her readers are all pleasure readers and, therefore, don’t care about syntax and structure. Hmm. You know what they say about “ass-u-me,” right?

In truth, readers’ educational background and knowledge of the English language vary a great deal. Does this mean we write to the lowest common denominator, or do we write to a higher standard? It may be that many won’t care about the overuse of adverbs – Lucy totally, absolutely loved her fabulously yellow car [yeech] – but there are a large populace who whose eyes would glaze over at a book filled with this kind of writing. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?

What if that reader is a reviewer? They’ll pull out their razor-sharp scalpel and cut you a new orifice. What if that reader happens to be an editor who bought your book while on their way to Hawaii? They’ll throw your book to the sand crabs and go buy a copy of National Geographic just to get the bad taste out of their mouth.

What if the reader is simply Joe or Jane Reader who is put off by blocks of character description that interrupts the flow of the story? Or they care that you overuse em dashes and ellipses? Or that you use more tell vs. show in your writing? The end result with all these scenarios is that the overall opinion of your book won’t be positive.

Let’s Be Perfectly Clear

The reason you should care about the rules is for the sake of clarity. You want your readers to understand what you’ve written.

POV Switches: POV switches within the same scene, or even in the same paragraph [god forbid] can be horrendously confusing because the reader looses sight of who’s head they’re supposed to be in. Head-hopping is a newbie problem that can only be done in the hands of an fabulous writer. Author Janice Eidus [The War of the Rosens] is just such an author, and I believe it was Kirkus who paid special notice of how deftly she used her POV switches. Janice is a brilliant writer, and readers are crazy not to rush out and buy her tender, heart-warming book.

Comma usage: Improper comma usage is another small thing that can bring clarity or confusion to a sentence, forcing the reader to re-read the sentence. In my mind, that’s a sin against the Reading Gods. If you don’t know how to use them, then how are you going to effectively tell your story?

Adverbs: Yes, I lean on our friend, the adverb, quite a bit and it’s because they are so seductive. I consider them the Antonio Banderas of writing. They’re sexy, handsome, and soooo easy on the eye and, before you know it, your writing is filled with adverbs that crowd, clutter, and irritate your readers. Not that Antonio ever could…

A manuscript filled with adverbs is overkill and there are plenty of readers who get to the point where they shout, “Yes! I get it, the car is wonderful and the character loves it. No need to stick fifteen adverbs in there to say so.”

The Evil Gatekeepers

The last reason authors should give a rat’s patootie about rules is those evil gatekeepers – agents and editors. See, you can rail against the unfairness of it all and be righteously indignant, but it’s not going to amount to a hill of lima beans if you can’t get past us.

We are your first readers. If you can’t get past us, you can’t reach those “unconcerned” readers. You may be happy in your belief that readers don’t care about our nitpicky concerns, and there are many vanity publishers who are thrilled to support you in that endeavor. But the main deal is this; ya gotta get past us. We care because it’s our $$ on the line. Agents care because they need to sell manuscripts to make $$.

So while we may be too picky for your tastes, we have a host of reasons as to why we’re that way. It’s what keeps our books on store shelves and in readers’ hands. And it’s what keeps readers saying nice things about our books.

Lastly, since when is “good enough” an excuse? If you receive a critique that points out weaknesses in your writing, your reaction shouldn’t be, “you’re too picky!” It should be a giant “thank you for pointing out some problems I wasn’t aware existed.”

6 Responses to Rules schmoolze, readers don’t care, so why should you?

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I’m pleased if an editor points out a comma misuse…it means they read it carefully.

    One of my favorite rejections is the one from the editor of Analog pointing out the *glaring* science error in one of my shorts that I’d missed, my first readers missed…rather than being annoyed with him for ‘picking my science apart’ I was ‘thank God that didn’t get published like that!’ (I can’t even remember what the science error was now without pulling out the slip, but it was most definitely something that would have got me ripped a new orifice by ‘picky’ readers ;).

  2. Ninja, you have a great attitude!

  3. catwoods says:

    What if doctors adopted that attitude? “Hey, shouldn’t we sew his ear back on straight?”

    “Nah, this guy’s legally blind. He’ll never notice.”

    I am firm believer that writers should hold a black belt in writing 101.

  4. [guffaw]Cat, this made me laugh so hard the beagle got concerned.

  5. “Fab advice,” opined the writer sycophantically, she wondered musingly why more people didn’t follow such clear advice – after all, everyone’s gotta story in them so they oughta learn to tell it, also comma splices sound very painful so must be avoided at all costs, luckily she didn’t know what an adverb was so she surely didn’t use any and … well, the writer was kind of running out of things to say at this point and thought she’d better get back quick and pronto to her Work in Progress.

  6. Oh that Morgan woman. Really, isn’t there some bug spray for her wit?

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