Does Writing Ruin Reading?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about all reading. Writers need to read, and there are more good books in this world than I’ll ever be able to plough through.

However, casual reading is much more difficult for me than it used to be.

Why? Because of the journey I’ve been through to get published.

Objects in Mirror was majorly (and I mean MAJORLY) re-written about six times. It was also proofread I-can’t-tell-you-how-many times.

There were lots of eyeballs on this book before it was published and each set of eyeballs taught me something new. Each revision corrected something I had really just never seen before (or I would have done it right to start with). I spent hours, and days, and weeks of my life doing line-by-line changes to this book. I started entirely new files and imported the manuscript chapter-by-chapter, only moving on when I was satisfied I had truly done all I could with the chunk I was working on.

Is it perfect? No. Of course not. And here’s something anyone who wants to write might as well accept – you can never revise to fit everybody’s taste. No way, not possible, and I can live with that.

But I am proud of the book, and there are things I’ve tried hard to edit out of this book – and out of my writing in general – that I’m disheartened to see in many, many books I pick up, and because I had to work so hard to kill them in my writing, I’m unable to be forgiving when I stumble across them elsewhere.

Examples? I knew you’d want some. Well, there are two biggies, and if you’ve ever read any writing blog, book, etc. you’ll have heard of these before. So why are they still showing up in so many books? I have no idea. They are:

(1) Filters. Ah, the killer filter. It’s so easy to use. It softens everything. It allows you to be just that little bit less precise, less immediate in your writing. Sometimes, I think, that feels good to a writer – safe. So, what is a filter? Filters are words like “felt”, “seemed”, “noticed” that put the reader at a distance. Some examples:

Filtered: “She heard the door slam and she felt her heart jump.”
Unfiltered: “The door slammed and her heart jumped.”

Filtered: “It seemed to her that everything was going wrong. She noticed he was always yelling.”
Unfiltered: “Everything was going wrong. He was always yelling.”

Do you see how the second sentences are more immediate? You’re in the action. It’s happening. You, as a reader, don’t have a buffer – or filter – between you and the story. I think, sometimes, writers hesitate to commit. It’s a bold statement to say “Everything was going wrong.” Wouldn’t it be better to soften it a bit by saying “It seemed to her that everything was going wrong.” There is a place for softening, and for taking care in your writing – in legal documents, in workplace memos, etc. In my opinion, novels should be experienced directly by the reader and I really dislike it when an author pushes me back.

(2) Showing vs. telling. Oh I know. You’ve heard this a MILLION times. But telling is still there all the time, when – often – it really doesn’t need to be. It’s harder to show, though. Again, it requires more precision. It requires courage. It means you have to trust your reader. Example:

Telling: “When she spoke to him she could tell he was shy.”
Showing: “When she spoke to him, he wouldn’t meet her eye. He fiddled with a thin strip of leather around his wrist.”

You see – this requires trust in the reader. I have to believe you, dear reader, will picture the boy not meeting somebody’s eyes, and you’ll figure out he’s shy. Of course, there will be other, contextual, clues as well in other sentences and paragraphs and, if you think about it, this is how you form opinions of people in real life. Nobody wears a sign that says “I’m shy” but they may not meet your eyes, or twirl their hair while they speak to you. Those, and other factors, will lead you to form an opinion about them.

Telling: “He dressed like a crazy person.”
Showing: “He wore, not just mismatched socks, but two different shoes, as well. These were easy to see because his pants were three inches too short; held up by suspenders with small skulls all over them. The skulls glowed in the dark.”

So, the first assertion – he dressed like a crazy person – leaves much open to interpretation. Some people might think he’s dressed in a hospital gown – like he really was in some sort of facility. Other people might have very different images of what a “crazy person” dresses like. It’s not a precise description, and it doesn’t really add to character development – not nearly as much as the second description anyway. I can later draw on details from the second description to add depth to the story. Maybe the skulls on the suspenders mean something. Maybe it’s something sinister, or maybe this person works in forensics, with human bones. Who knows? Not me … I just made it up … but I hope you can see what I mean.

Going back to why writing can ruin reading – once you’re aware of these things (and especially if you work hard to do them yourself) – it’s really difficult to get past them and just enjoy a story. You might want to, but the filters jump off the page at you and yell “Look at me!” and you mentally re-write the sentences to remove them. When you encounter unnecessary telling, you think “Show me! Trust me! Let me figure this out for myself!”

Or, at least, I do.

How about you? A while ago, on my Facebook page, I posted a story about book abandonment. What makes you abandon a book? Or, if you’re a die-hard finisher, what makes you wish you could close a book and walk away?

Love to know! Meanwhile, I’m reading Fever, by Mary Beth Keane, and I have no intention of stopping it. A great read, if you’re interested in historical fiction.




  1. YES. I have been thinking this for a while now. For me, it’s not the writing so much as the proofreading that I’m doing that is killing my ability to just enjoy a book and get lost in the story. I’m too busy picking out things I don’t like about the style, or plot holes, or places where I’d add more character development, etc. It’s too easy now to read with a critical eye, instead of just relaxing and enjoying the story. GAH.

    When you figure out how to do it, let me know!

    • Well, I think it means when you do get lost in a story, to the point that you can ignore the small stuff, it must be a GREAT story!