This is a guest post by author/editor Katharine Trauger
You probably would prefer NOT to kill your readers. But you might be a reader murderer without realizing it. Here’s your personal “cheat sheet” for avoiding three hidden ways you might be killing your readers.
Living readers love a well-written essay. You know those elegant pieces of prose that make you want to listen to the author read it aloud? I’m sure you love them too, especially when you’re the one producing that triumphant work of art we too seldom see in print.
I am positive your editor loves them.
It’s not hard to write life-saving prose, it just takes some awareness. Let’s consider these three big ways you can help keep your readers alive:
Reader Murder Method 1: Stress them!
In this day of technology, when it comes to smilies and exclamation points, it’s easy to write like a teenager and not even realize it. Just as my car often turns into my favorite shopping mall, all by itself, so our fingers often launch what Mary DeMuth called “word art” in overabundance, without our willing or even knowing it.
Correct use of exclamation points is easy to learn. When you let them do their own job and no other jobs, exclamation points can make excitement out of ordinary words.
Not knowing how, and accidentally overusing them, can turn amazing writing into a mere comic strip. Calming down your writing and your readers is easy, though.
Only use exclamation points when:
- A word or two indicates danger, surprise, or other strong feeling, spoken as an outburst. Examples: Stop it! Wonderful!
- A sentence begins with a question word, but is not a question. Examples: What a lovely morning! How tall you’ve grown!
- A sentence indicates high feeling, but does not fit the above two rules. Examples: Our poor kitty died! I cannot believe you said that!
Don’t overdo this last use or you’ll kill, instead of emphasize. The above two examples could stand alone just fine, with only a period, depending on your meaning and style.
Do not litter your work with unnecessary exclamation points.
In fact, examine all punctuation, removing whatever clutters the reading. These days, even editors no longer desire every single comma. Aim at clean lines whenever possible. Rewrite or rearrange and add clarity without commas when possible.
Reader Murder Method 2: Make them vomit
Literate readers hate misuse of the words such as up and nauseous.
The late, great Dr. Seuss wrote the definitive book on up to an audience that loved malapropisms. He defined and used the word up however he desired.
Most writers do not have that liberty; most of us serve adults who like things done right.
When my kids knelt by the bathroom lavatory, giggling and dribbling soapy water everywhere, after I told them to wash up for dinner, they were right. When I told them to pick up their rooms, they climbed a stepladder to push up on the ceiling directly beneath their bedrooms, to show me they’d caught me again.
What can I say? I trained them and had to practice what I’d preached, which was: don’t use up as a filler.
Editors do not love malapropisms.
Next, the thrice-horrible misuse of noxious, nauseous, and nauseate can make for woozy reading.
Ready? You might want to sit down and have some cool water to sip . . .
- Nauseated. Feeling sick to the stomach.
- Nauseous. Smelling or looking or sounding in a way that makes one feel sick to the stomach.
- Noxious. Poison or seeming poison.
When you say, “I am nauseous,” you are saying “I inspire people to throw up, by the way I look, smell, or sound.” Get it right, please! Check how you really want to pronounce these, too.
The nauseous odor made several of us nauseated, but the FDA assured us the fumes were not noxious and our nausea would pass.
Reader Murder Method 3: Trip them repeatedly
Anything that trips the reader is a primary target for revision. You know, if you fix grammar booboos, you will not trip a dysfunctional reader. However, leaving them wrong will make the literate reader stop reading and look for a red pen.
Fix all split infinitives.
What does this mean?
English verb infinitives are really two words: to plus the base form of the verb. The infinitive of rode is to ride, and of goes is to go. Try placing words between the two words of the infinitive phrase, and you’ll be wrong. [Editor's Note: Gene Roddenberry has long since been forgiven.]
- We wanted to quickly ride away.
- We hoped to eventually go home.
Do not split infinitives.
- We wanted to ride away quickly.
- We eventually hoped to go home.
Note: Meaning changes when you move adverbs, so take care when you rearrange them.
Also note: Your earning potential changes when you leave those adverbs within infinitive phrases.
Fix all split infinitives.
The dangling participle, though, often causes even a grumpy editor to burst into laughter.
(This is bad, unless the book is about humorous dangling participles.)
The participle is another verb form. We use participles with auxiliary verbs: I am writing. I was writing. I have written. I had written.
Using participles is good, if we’re not dangling them–attaching them to the wrong noun because of writing a ridiculous sentence.
Though caked with mud, we threw the jeans into the wash.
Really. We were caked with mud? That is what we just said. OR:
Hopping through the dry grass, I saw a brown rabbit.
Why was I hopping through the grass, and how could I see a rabbit if I was being so noisy?
Of course, we know the intent of each wrong sentence, above, but we also know it is wrong.
So does the editor.
Again, fixing it will not disturb the reading pleasure of the under-educated, but failing to fix it will disturb an editor and will spoil reading pleasure for those who love good writing.
Fix all dangling participles.
Though they were caked with mud, we threw the jeans into the wash.
I saw a brown rabbit that was hopping through the dry grass.
Last, avoid passive sentences as much as possible. Often we can spot the passive sentence if it makes sense to follow it with the question, “By whom?” Examples:
- The ball was brought inside. The action in that sentence is brought. However, who or what did the action does not appear in the sentence. We could rationally ask, “By whom?”
Who or what brought the ball inside?
The noun in the front half of the sentence is not the doer of the action. The ball did nothing and the subject is missing.
- The package has been sent to Mary. Sounds so good. Is wrong.
Using passive verbs is sometimes acceptable. In teaching materials, such as recipes and textbooks, passive construction works to break up the choppy command mood.
- Separate the eggs. The yolks should be beaten until lemon-colored. This is traditional usage in a cookbook.
- Blue is used in a map to indicate water. A fourth-grade geography text might include such a sentence, which is not really wrong because it is instructional material.
In story telling, though, be careful. Passive is still acceptable, when we use it as a tool to indicate actual passivity.
I’ve been robbed.
This is a good use of the passive for four reasons:
- The doer of the action is probably unknown; we cannot answer “by whom?”
- The speaker perhaps feels violated or weak. Showing passivity could be the author’s intent.
- The speaker is on the receiving end of a doer/done-to scenario.
- The verb at the end of the sentence receives proper emphasis, is the purpose of the sentence: to indicate a robbery, not to indicate a doer.
Once you learn to recognize passive sentences, unless they advance your writing, you will omit them.
Oh, if only I could be a perfect writer! It is so easy to miss perfection, but I want to go there.
Come along with me, okay? And let’s bring along a slew of alive-and-kicking readers.
»Murder of Crows photo by Sheila Sund
Katharine Trauger is a retired educator and a women’s counselor. She and her husband spent 25 years conducting a home and school for children who would otherwise be homeless. She has worked 15 years as contributor and/or columnist for several small professional magazines, with over 60 published articles. She blogs from a sunroom on a wooded hilltop in the Deep South, about the rising popularity of being at home, at: Home’s Cool! and The Conquering Mom, and Tweets at KathaTrau. She is currently writing a self-help book entitled: Yes, It Hurts, But . . .
Have you left any Dead Readers in your wake? Only the perfect writers among us can say they haven’t. Share your Reader-Saving tips in Comments, below.