Monday, September 5, 2011

Just Say No to Eye Rolling

by Joan

As a writer, I study authors’ words for style and phrasing and techniques to strengthen my own writing. Every book I read teaches me something about writing, or about life. Perhaps I learn a unique use of description to convey mood or read a sharp observation that feels so true, the author might actually live in my house.

But what happens when I pick up a title and find not honed skills and wry observations, but bad habits and sloppy writing? If I I don’t put down the book, I’m in danger of employing the same bad habits.

So the first time your eyes roll, you should say to yourself, “Do I strive to write like this?” If you’re still reading the second time your eyes roll, close the book.

We’ve all started books we’ve given up on, although I have known one or two avid readers who finish every book, no matter how much they dislike it. So much of our opinions depend on life circumstances—one novel might resonate deeply in our forties but ten years later be too painful to read. We might consider a storyline brilliant in our twenties, but might now find it banal.

On the flip side, have you ever tried to read a novel and decided you weren’t smart enough to appreciate it? (If I'm the only idiot, please don't burst my ignorant bubble.) I’ve given up on tomes I considered inaccessible or too much work to be enjoyable. If it’s a book I know I should read, I often turn to the audio version. (Should = Interesting theme, award-winning writing, numerous recommendations.)

When I first picked up the hard copy of Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall (on the recommendation of many, including the smartest guy I know), I tried hard to like it. But something about Mantel’s confusing use of pronouns stopped me. Who was the “he” she referred to in this sentence? In that one? Two years later, I still felt badly about abandoning this book as I came across the title while scrolling through As a true anglophile, especially when it comes to audio books, I bought it immediately. The inaccessibility I’d felt earlier vanished as the voices came to life. Her book is blowing my socks off—the writing, the humor, the absolute brilliant dialogue. I can't imagine why I ever gave up on it.

I know I’m learning as I listen to Mantel. Chances are, I won't win the Man Booker, but perhaps my own dialogue might get a little snappier, my descriptions bolder, my stories less filled with the boring bits and eye-rolling moments.


  1. A thought provoking post, Joan. I confess a lousy plot and weak characters will make me close a book for good long before sloppy writing. Too many bad writing habits, though, can ruin an otherwise good story. As of yet, I haven't tried audio books. Must try one.

  2. I live for audio books! Some people think it's cheating, but to me listening to an author's words brings a book alive, especially when it's read by a strong narrator, such as Alan Rickman (Return of the Native), Frank McCourt reading his own titles, or serial narrators Simon Prebble, John Lee, Donada Peters, and Kate Reading. (Try Kate Reading's I Dont' Know How She Does It, the book behind the new Sarah Jessica Parker movie).

  3. I used to force myself to finish a book, no matter how much I didn't enjoy it. I buy books rather than borrow them. I wanted to get my money's worth.

    Now that I have kids and little time to read, I won't waste any of it plodding along through something I'm not enjoying. Bad writing won't always make me put a book down if the story is good enough. If I don't care about the characters, or if the writer appears to be rubbing his "brilliance" in the face of his readers just for the purpose of sounding writerly, I close the book. The best writing comes across as effortless and doesn't leave readers scratching their heads and trying to dissect meaning.

    You are not the only one who has been left not feeling smart enough to appreciate something. I'm sure we all have.


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