What readers hate most

Via The Passive Voice Blog, this column from the Washington Post about what readers hate most in books.

Apparently, book lovers have been storing up their pet peeves in the cellar for years, just waiting for someone to ask. Hundreds and hundreds of people responded, exceeding my wildest dreams.

Dreams, in fact, are a primary irritation for a number of readers. Such reverie might have worked for Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” or Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but no more, thank you very much. “I absolutely hate dream sequences,” writes Michael Ream. “They are always SO LITERAL,” Jennifer Gaffney adds, “usually an example of lazy writing.”

Actually, I sort of like dreams — if they’re brief and emotionally evocative. I’m not sure what Ream means by saying dreams are always so literal. I haven’t noticed that.

Let me see, do I ever hate dreams in novels? Oh, yes — I don’t like long dreams that direct the protagonist’s attention to some important item. Magic dreams, let’s say. Possibly that’s what is meant by “literal.” Also of course endings where it was all a dream, but that’s surely (very) rare these days. However, as a rule, I do not hate dreams in books, or even dislike dreams.

Oh, here’s one: Katherine A. Powers, Book World’s audiobook reviewer, laments that so many “authors don’t know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’”

I completely agree. Completely. Various otherwise excellent writers make this mistake in book after book, which means their proofreaders are also making this mistake and the author doesn’t fix it, which DRIVES ME NUTS. If the proofreader routinely misses this error, then it’s the author’s job to get this sorted out. If the back of your brain can’t do this correctly while you’re writing, that is what the Find command is actually for. Find every. single. instance of lay throughout the entire manuscript and look at it and change it if necessary. For crying out loud, this should not be that difficult.

As a side note, I don’t think I ever make this mistake, but I bet if I did ALL OF YOU would catch it. I’m almost tempted to put an incorrect “lay” somewhere in a draft to prove that.

While we’re on the topic, I don’t care how much trouble it is, if you happen to be one of the many people who sometimes write “and I” when you mean “and me,” then do the same thing for “and I” and look at every single instance and analyze it and change it to “and me” when appropriate.

Once you know something like this is a problem for you, I suggest that it would be sensible to add this check to your routine checklist of ordinary preparation of a file for publication. I’m assuming proofreaders at Big Five publishers don’t make these mistakes, but if one does, the author ought to notice that and stet it and also imo write a sharp little note on the page proofs, because that should never happen. These mistakes are just like fingernails down a blackboard.

I grant, some potential errors would be horrifically annoying to search for, such as “it’s” vs “its.” Still, if that were a serious problem for me, I would search for that. In fact, I do search for semicolons and dashes and remove about a quarter of them. I bet you would never guess that because there are hordes and gobs and oodles left. I really like semicolons and dashes! But I do take out quote a lot of them.

OH. I have an actual tip that might help for many of these sorts of errors. Did you know you can put whatever you want in Autocorrect in Word?

You can go to File, then Options, then Proofing, then Autocorrect Options, and then you can tell Autocorrect, for example, to replace “lay” with “check again” and hit Add and Okay. Then every time you type “lay,” the text will appear in your document as “check again.” In order to actually put the word “lay” in your document, you can then tell Autocorrect to replace “lya” with “lay.”

That will definitely make you stop and think before you use “lay.”

I got that tip from someone … trying to remember who it was … oh, it was Gary Corby! Glad I remembered. Anyway, Gary said he replaced “just” with “no no no” because he thought he was overusing “just.” To actually put the word “just” in his document, he autocorrected “jsut” to “just.”

Anyway, back to the linked post about stuff readers hate!

Meanwhile, Cali Bellini finds that the word “preternatural” is “overused, abused and never necessary.”

Now, that just strikes me as funny. I think this has to be confirmation bias. I don’t remember the last time I saw the word “preternatural” in a novel. I wouldn’t bet money that I have ever seen it! I think this is an example of someone saying “I don’t like [this specific word]” and then noticing instances of that word for the rest of their life. I bet if you made a tick mark on a calendar every time you saw the word “preternatural” in a novel in 2023, you wouldn’t have more than two checkmarks on the calendar at the end of the year — even if you read a book a day.

All right, for me, the overuse of “preternatural” is not a problem. I’m not sure there is any specific words I’m so tired of that it jumps out at me. I’m trying to think of a word like that and I’m not coming up with anything.

And I don’t think I see any other grammatical problems that really irritate me.

Except “alright” as one word, and I must grudgingly acknowledge that some benighted people do apparently feel that’s legitimate. It’s just that they’re wrong and “alright” stops my eye every single time I see it and I just detest it.

How about you? What specific usage errors or particular words make you shudder with a fingernails-on-a-blackboard feeling?

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7 thoughts on “What readers hate most”

  1. I suspect the thing about dreams is: real dreams don’t make sense. There are all sorts of sudden changes, somebody looking like one person but actually being another person etc. Oh, and the plot is weird. If the fictional dream doesn’t mirror that…

  2. Lise, if fictional dreams don’t mirror that, then (a) maybe it’s prophetic! or (b) it’s probably symbolic. I personally find prophetic dreams overdone and mildly annoying, but I’m okay with symbolic dreams. I agree it’s really difficult to write a dream that makes as little sense as most real dreams, but one way to handle that is to have the dream be very short. No time to have someone turn out to be someone else, or for the plot of the dream to go off in a surreal direction.

  3. I can think of only a single case where “to lay” is commonly used correctly when applied to oneself:

    Now I lay me down to sleep.
    Now I lie down to sleep.

    Perhaps the confusion snuck in through the unusually horrid past tenses. (I say this with personal feelings on the topic.)

  4. What I hate the most is noticing if the writer has a quirk that quickly becomes annoying. Like LE Modestitt and his ellipses. Or there’s this romance author that I initially really liked, but now I can’t stand the way she drops the subject from her sentences. Use complete sentences please!!!! Fragments are also awful. Once or twice, if done well, they can have impact. But when an author leans into a bad habit, it gets old fast.

  5. Much depends on the use.

    I know there are people with PTSD who hate the use of PTSD dreams because they are always faithful flashbacks (being used for infodumping) when in reality the dreams are often unrelated.

    (Personally, I wonder how they know the dreams come from PTSD then. Surely there are people with bad dreams who don’t have PTSD?)

  6. Kathryn McConaughy

    What I hate most:
    “That’s concerning.”
    What is this? Is it new?
    Also, misuse of “comprised of” versus “comprises” by a specific author.

  7. I’ll notice pet phrases that authors overuse, but they don’t grate on me the way it does for some. I’m less forgiving of sloppy character development/more structural issues with the book.

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