Friday, January 21, 2011

Things You Don't Want Your Readers Doing (No Pun Intended)

Anyone here spend time on xkcd? If yes, high fives all around. And now, for your viewing pleasure....

Now, how is this vaguely related to anything I've ever said or done in the past on this blog (aside from the fact that it vaguely amused me)?

If you guessed writing, you get another high five.

Have you ever read a book and thought, "Okay, I now have officially no idea what the turducken is going on"? Now, if you were anything like, well, the vast majority of the kids I knew in high school, unless the book was for a class, you closed the book and, when asked about it, said "That thing's incomprehensible." And, heck, maybe even if the book was for a class, you did that.

Okay, most people give a book more than one shot. So, even if sometimes something happens and you're confused, you keep reading, because you give the author the benefit of the doubt. Somehow, some way, you tell yourself, this will all get cleared up.

Because that's the deal writers make with readers. Readers will read what we write. What we write will make sense. I'm not even talking about plot or character arcs or any of that, at the moment (though those things should definitely make sense); I'm talking about writing. The words you use.

When you put words on paper in a particular order, they should, in the end, create a sentence that makes sense. And those sentences should result in a paragraph that makes sense. And hopefully those paragraphs will... well, you know the rest.

We've all been there. You read that sentence over and think, "What was I thinking when I wrote this? Honestly, how many Cokes did I down that night? Can you even do that in English?" And, let's face it, sometimes the answer is, no, no you can't do that in English.

That's why we edit. Because we are nice authors, and we don't want our readers walking into walls, tripping on stairs, or falling into manholes as they stumble around wondering, "Seriously, what was that supposed to mean?"

Have you ever been there? Has this ever happened to you? Do you ever feel like writing you're looking at, yours or other people's, just doesn't make sense in English?


  1. If my writing doesn't make sense in English then I'm really screwed because I don't know any other languages. But yes, I often read things I've written and say "What were you thinking? What does that even mean?" Or better yet, my crit partners pick out things for me that don't make any sense.

  2. Oh yes, at school, many many many moons ago - studying Shakespeare, there's so much hidden meaning in that language and symbolism.

    Neat sketch btw! ;)

  3. There's a lot of books I read in school where I'm just like... what the hell just happened. It really turned me off reading for awhile and I think it's a huge danger for schools to be forcing kids to read incomprehensible books because it just turns more and more people off of reading permanently.

  4. I've come across a few sentences here and there where a word (or three) was inserted or omitted and completely scrambled the meaning. Usually I give the book the benefit of the doubt and continue on - typos are chuckle-worthy in sparsity, annoying in moderation.

    Confusion, however, can be an art in itself. One of my...favorite? Yeah, sure, why not? One of my favorite books was a required read in high school. I've re-read it once or twice and find new meanings and nuances each time. And yet, The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector continues to be one of the most confusing books I've ever read. It's prose, but only just barely, with a plot woven in and around dreamlike thoughts of what it's like to write and life and the universe. I've read it, I love it, and still it's hard to describe!

    I guess what I'm saying is, there's a difference between making a sentence understandable through placing words in the correct order for grammar's sake, and making a poetic or artistic choice for a novel.

  5. Perspicacious. I read that in a YA book recently and I stumble over it now. Yet, it worked when the author used it! (I understand exactly what you mean...I'm just being difficult. :))

  6. Melissa -- Ah, the benefits of crit partners. Other eyes can be very useful.

    Talei -- Shakespeare's beautiful, but there are definitely layers to the language.

    Melissa -- Incomprehensibility can be a definite turn off to books.

    Vicki -- That's true, the art of writing is sometimes a whole different level than just making sense.

    Carolyn -- Perspicacious. Nice word, but definitely one I'd be careful of using. It can be a problem if people don't know what the words mean.