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September 4, 2014

How to Make Sure Readers Don’t Close the Book

Woman reading a book with text: Keep the Readers Reading

Many articles and infographics have tried to answer the question of what makes readers stop reading. They usually include a list of offenses like typos, too boring, confusing, etc. And those are all true. But a recent post took a more analytical approach to measuring problem areas.

Jefferson Smith started a reading program called “Immerse or Die.” Every day he chooses a self-published book to read while exercising on his treadmill. Each time a book forces him out of the story, that’s a strike. He gives each book three strikes—additional chances to not lose his attention again. At three strikes, the book is closed.

That “three strikes” rule probably matches how I approach new books as well. I can forgive one, maybe two strikes, as typos and mistakes do happen. But three strikes, especially in the first couple of chapters, adds up to a bad impression.

More importantly, I liked his approach because the number one piece of advice for story quality is:

Keep readers in the story.

Why do we stay up late, turning pages? Why do we read stories outside our normal genres? Why do we read stories about unlikable characters? Because we’re sucked into the story.

Good Storytelling Can Overcome Many Sins

Authors who keep readers immersed in the story can get away with so-so writing, and sometimes they can even get away with unlikable characters, characters who make stupid choices, lame subplots, sections with slow pacing, etc. We’ve probably all seen reviews of stories where the reader says “the writing was laughably bad, but I couldn’t stop reading.”

On some level, keeping readers immersed in the story should be our number one writing goal. Each time the reader is reminded that they’re reading a book—for whatever reason—we’re reminding them they have a choice to close the book.

Readers who are deep into the story don’t consciously think about the words on the page, much less the pages in the book. They’re right alongside our characters. Therefore, they forget they can walk away.

The Ever-Important Opening Pages

Jefferson recently reported on the 50 books he’s put through the program so far. His report contains several insights that I want to highlight here.

He found that two-thirds of the stories that struck out did so within 12 minutes of reading, about 4000 words. This is why sample chapters and Amazon’s Look Inside feature are so important for sales.

As readers, we know that for most books, either it will appeal to us right away or it won’t. If I make it to the end of the Look Inside excerpt, I almost always buy the book. But I don’t make it to the end for most books.

Since I’ve started checking the Look Inside excerpt before I buy, my book purchases have decreased. That’s bad for the authors who don’t make the cut, but good for those who do, as my Kindle is less over-stuffed and I’m more likely to read the rest of their story.

What Breaks Reader Immersion?

So what pulls readers out of the story and causes a strike against it? Jefferson came up with 27 categories, from weak mechanics (misspelled or missing words, etc.) to too-coincidental plot events, and I recommended checking out his chart (under “The Taxonomy of WTFs” sub-heading) for the full list.

But what he—and I—found most interesting was that five of those 27 categories accounted for half of the strikes. The top five problem areas he identified are:

  1. weak mechanics (spelling, grammar, etc.)
  2. implausible character behaviors (out-of-character actions)
  3. echoing (words, sentence styles, or imagery that calls attention to itself)
  4. illogical world building (elements don’t hold up or make sense)
  5. conspicuous exposition (backstory and info dumping)

Then he went on to analyze those issues deeper:

“I often think of the process of fiction writing as being arranged into 3 fundamentally distinct skill sets: story building, story telling, and text editing. And it takes mastery of all three of these areas to produce an engaging story that fans will love. …

    • Story Building Problems: These are weaknesses in the story design itself. Examples include tired old cliche plots, illogical economic systems, illogical or impossible physics, inconsistent or unbelievable characters, etc.
    • Story Telling Problems: Here we find the problems related to how the conceived story is translated and organized into text. This accounts for things like bad pacing, clichéd scenes, bad dialogue, show vs. tell, and so on.
    • Editorial Problems: These are the problems that could have been avoided with better copy editing. Spelling, verb tenses, missing words, words used incorrectly, etc.”

When he regrouped the 27 strike categories into these three major skill areas, he found that only 25% of strikes fell into the Editorial group. Story Telling accounted for 44%, and Story Building accounted for 31%.

What Does That Mean for Our Stories?

Those results tell me that too many authors aren’t benefiting from a full editing cycle. Years ago, when editors at traditional publishers actually edited, and not just “acquired” stories, books would go through several editing passes:

  • developmental editing
  • line/copy editing
  • proofreading

Now, I’ve heard authors from many publishers (traditional, small, and digital-first) say the only editing  they received was one of the latter two, copyediting or proofreading. For many authors, that’s what they think “being edited” means.

That impression leads to self-published authors taking the same shortcut. Not surprisingly, I’ve heard self-published authors claim their work was edited because they had a copyeditor.

Great! But that’s missing 75% of the potential problems in our stories.

Only developmental editing will catch Story Building problems, and most Story Telling problems as well. (Many line editors and some copy editors will also point out Story Telling issues like bad dialogue or show vs. tell problems.)

For the most part, copyediting and proofreading are about making what’s already on the page the best it can be. Whereas, in addition to looking for weak, illogical, or inconsistent elements, developmental editing also looks for what’s missing—what’s not on the page.

Only development editing will catch whether the story is the best it can be. Without that editing step, we’re potentially leaving weaknesses on the page in the plot arc, character arc, emotions, turning points, tension, conflict, stakes, themes, etc.

(And I swear I’m not just saying all this because I do developmental editing on the side. I’m not even linking to my editing page. *smile*)

But Editing Is Expensive!

Yes, editing is expensive. I fully understand why some publishers and self-published authors want to skip editing steps. But I also want us all to have the best stories we can. So how can we save money?

Option 1: Beta Readers

Many authors use beta readers instead of developmental editors. If we have great beta readers, I think this can work fine.

If we’ve received comments on the following elements from our beta readers, they’re probably thorough enough:

  • Story and Character Arcs (and if applicable, the Romance Arc): Do they have suggestions for how to make these stronger? Show more contrast from the beginning to the end of the story? Make a smoother flow?
  • Plot Events and Turning Points: Do they have suggestions for making the plot stronger? Less confusing, illogical, or coincidental? More emotional for readers?
  • Conflicts, Stakes, and Tension: Do they point out where these aspects seem weak? Or suggest how to make them more personal to the characters? Or how to make the antagonistic forces more difficult to overcome?
  • Pacing and Information Dumps: Do they point out slow sections? Or where we’re boring the reader?
  • Characterization and Likeability: Do they point out ways we could show more about the character through characterization? Or how to eliminate character problems such as unlikeability or “too stupid to live”?
  • Goals and Motivations: Do they point out where character actions don’t make sense? Or characters don’t seem to have a purpose? Or where characters seem to be puppets to the plot?
  • Story and Character Themes: Do they notice themes at all? Or have suggestions for how to strengthen them?
  • Other Writing Issues: Do they identify point of view issues? Or where we’re telling instead of showing?

*psst* We can use this list to evaluate developmental editors (or the editing quality of publishers) too. *smile*

Option 2: Manuscript Analysis

Some developmental editors will read through the whole manuscript and give an overview of the above issues. These analyses (sometimes called Manuscript Critiques) are usually cheaper than a full developmental edit because the editor isn’t making comments within the manuscript itself to point out specifics.

These overviews are very similar to the “revision letter” some publishers’ editors provide. As long as we’re able to take overall suggestions and apply the feedback to our specific scenes, this option works well and would cost hundreds of dollars, rather than over a thousand dollars for a full novel edit.

Option 3: Partial Edit

Some developmental editors will give feedback on a partial of a story. This can be a good option if we want to make sure those opening 3-5 chapters are as strong as they can be. Obviously, this would be cheaper than a full developmental edit as well.

I’ve recommended this option for those who think their self-editing and/or beta readers have caught all the big issues but want to make sure. Call it a “sanity check” that might relieve our worries or point out how we’re not quite there yet.

Option 4: Alpha Readers

As Jefferson pointed out in his post, when it comes to illogical plots or story worlds, we can also use alpha readers, those willing to help us brainstorm the development of our story. I think of alpha readers as “brainstorm buddies,” and I’m lucky enough to have a great reader in my family for this.

Others might have a close beta reader or critique group buddy willing to brainstorm with us. A few developmental editors offer story development service as well, but I’m not sure how that’s priced. Regardless of where we find the help, the point of brainstorming with alpha readers is to prevent story logic problems that will require huge revisions later.

Option 5: Self-Editing

Jefferson also noted that simply by being aware of these issues to avoid, we can potentially self-edit ourselves to better stories. Janice Hardy has a great post about being our own book doctor, filled with questions to ensure our story is as strong as it can be.

With this option, I’d recommend using a backup method for our first story or two, until we’ve verified that we’re able to find and fix these errors ourselves. Most of us aren’t able to see big-picture issues because in our head, the story is logical and the characters’ actions do make sense. So Option 5 shouldn’t be relied on unless another source has confirmed our ability to self-edit to the necessary level.

However we approach story-level editing, the important thing is that we need to make sure those big-picture problems are analyzed and addressed somehow. If not, we’re likely leaving 75% of our writing issues in place. And that’s definitely not going to keep readers turning pages. *smile*

How many strikes do you give a book before you stop reading? When you close a book, do the reasons tend to be story problems or writing problems? What story problems have made you close a book? If you’re traditionally published, did your publisher provide all the editing phases? If you’re self-published, do you have a method for addressing each editing step?

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What do you think?

38 Comments on "How to Make Sure Readers Don’t Close the Book"

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Carradee

Frankly, how forgiving I am of a story depends on my mood. If I’ve just had to edit 3 people in a row who lacked character motivations, then I’m going to be a lot less forgiving of it in some random author I read.

That said, some of my favorite authors frequently have homophone screwups. (Ironically, those ones are traditionally published. My favorite self-published authors tend to have fewer objective errors than my favorite traditionally published authors.) The characters and story draw me in to the point that, even though I’ll wince, I’ll still enjoy the story.

But if I’m having to mentally edit it just to understand the story, I’ll likely drop it. Disinterest or disconnection with the story and particularly the characters will also lead to dropping a book. I’ve stopped some enjoyable books halfway through because I wasn’t eager to find out the end or how the book got to the end.

For my self-published work, I seek to address at least some of this by having multiple beta readers—ideally at least 1 of comparable background to me, and at least 1 of completely different background from me. The former particularly helps with spots where what I convey might’ve not been what I meant, and the latter particularly helps with spots where I’m missing a motive or transition for what I mean.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
Like you, those “Look Inside” excerpts are part of my process, but sometimes (for non e-book only titles) I have to go into a OFFLINE bookstore (like I will later today, YAY!) and read beyond what the “Look Inside” excerpt allows before I can be sure I want to buy it. While it’s true not enough attentive editing can ruin an otherwise good book, I do feel readers in general need to remember w’re human and not all errors are simply a matter of being “inattentive.” I think it’s easier for authors to forget this because we have such high standards for our work, and some of that isn’t coming SOLELY from us, or about being pessimistic for the “Fun” of it, but precisely because we’re DEADLY aware what poor quality does to our writer rep, and if we’re not able to self-publish, we have to remember that we’re human, not pretend it’s not important, but to keep that angst at bay or it will tear away what little resolve and personal sanity we have. There was a typo book in the (what I now is the LAST…Sobs) Hermux Tantamoq book, but I can with one typo, though if it ever gets reissued, I hope it gets fixed. It does not stop me from recommending the series. (I have the Fan Made Trailers to prove it!) As you know, we’ve had many discussions about editing, and while I may sound otherwise at times, I do agree with you, I just… Read more »
R. A. Meenan

Some excellent points here. I tend to follow that three strike rule as well, and honestly, poor characters or characters acting out of character are two of my biggest turn offs.

It’s good to keep these things in mind while writing too, because some day someone’s going to read your book with those things in mind!

I loved your section about good story telling and good writing. Sometimes someone can be a totally amazing writer, but not a good story teller, so it’s hard to keep me in the story. Inversely, sometimes someone can be an amazing story teller, but a bad writer, but I’m so engrossed in the story, I don’t notice it.

Honestly, I always thought Harry Potter fell into that second category. Rowling is an AMAZING story teller, which is why I got hooked, but probably she’s only a so-so writer. She breaks a lot of writing “rules” that sometimes takes me out of the stories (like changing world facts to cover up plot holes, or overusing the same three adverbs with every dialogue tag), but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy her stories!

Kitt Crescendo

You know, I’ll forgive a lot of the grammatical stuff if the writer keeps me engaged by the story or the characters. I understand that occasionally autocorrect fails us and adds an apostrophe to our its or can sometimes change a word regardless of our intent. 😉 I’ve even seen where a character name got typo’d in 5-6 spots.

The biggest things that put me off are unrealistic or stories that just don’t entertain. Or characters that are either not likeable or come across as cardboard. Don’t get me wrong. I know some authors who actually manage to have successful careers purely on their character sketches and no true depth to their books….and that’s great for them, but it’s not my cup of coffee. I love interesting stories that engage me at an emotional level of some sort.

So I guess the guy is right…LOL! 3 different categories that can kill a book for a person. Check.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Actually, I find that I care more about subject matter than about writing and storytelling ability in judging a book, like how I judge the tastiness of food more by the ingredients used than by the chef’s culinary skills! E.g. for some bestsellers or classics out there, they very likely have great writing and storytelling, but I don’t really like their subject matter. Maybe I don’t like their type of characters, or their type of story, or think it’s way too depressing, etc. Disliking their characters could be because of their personalities, habits, behavior, immorality, or something else. (There was a book we read for an English course where the protagonist was this guy who regularly rapes his wife and even cheats on her—and despite all this, she’s still in love with him; what the hell?) Sometimes, I just don’t like the kind of people all of the main cast are. And I in general really really hate adulterers and womanizers. But sometimes, it could just be that I think the subject matter’s boring. For some reason, I am instantly turned off if I learn that the story’s about war. (No offense to those who like war stories!) I feel better if it’s a war in a fantasy or sci-fi world, though. Yet the post-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and dystopian wars are getting a bit old… IN CONTRAST, for a story with more mediocre writing and storytelling ability, if the story is one of the types I LIKE, especially if I love… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Just a note: While I do prefer “subject matter I love but with poorer story writing or telling” books to books with “subject matter I hate but with great writing and storytelling” , I have to admit that the VAST MAJORITY of the former type of books I loved were page-turners to me, or at least were almost never boring. In fact, the vast majority of books with very long boring sections in them that I read, were literary classics, haha. (I might still like them though, for other reasons.) Modern authors, whether published or unpublished, tend to be really smart at keeping their stories engaging all throughout, I find. Or maybe I was just lucky, lol.

It could also be that I very easily find a book a page-turner, or maybe I’m just more patient than the average reader?

Mike

My method of choosing/discarding a print book is to select a random page near the middle, if I want to read more after one or two paragraphs I check it out or buy it. I’ve been fooled by books that started off like the hare in the fabled race, and, just like in the fable, took a nap after the first couple laps.

I hate when a book dies before it’s supposed to, and that’s why I hate most the two manuscripts I’ve finished. Great starts, but they fell of the track after a couple laps. Maybe they jogged to a local watering hole for a Fat Tire. ::)

Emma Burcart

This is all such good information. It is making me think a lot about myself as a reader. I did realize recently that I hate reading books that lack figurative language. A book I read recently that had received tons of praise was so hard to get through because 1. the protagonist was passive and never made a decision, and 2. there was only one simile in the entire book. As I am in school right now many of the books are required, so I can’t put them down. Right now I’m reading a classic where the heroine is so weak and passive it makes the book difficult to read. I guess I like characters who make decisions and act. It makes me sad to think that publishers are now skipping an entire step in the editing process. As teachers we are always telling kids that revision comes before editing, it isn’t edit and done. But it seems that it isn’t just the kids who want to skip to the end. Thanks for another great post. 🙂

Julie Musil

Oh, wow, this is golden! Thanks for sharing this with us. Those opening pages are scary-important, so it’s nice to get reminders about what we can do right. Thank you!

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[…] How to Make Sure Readers Don’t Close The Book by Jami Gold. Her top 3’s are mine too. I’ve read beautifully worded stuff that bad character actions and illogical buildups made me put it down never to return. […]

Shah Wharton

This post and the many more like it are why if I ever won the lottery (or in any other way found the required sum) I’d hire you for every one of my projects. This is yet another post in my bookmarks, and another one I’ll copy into a word document. You are all over my computer! 🙂

Thanks so much for these great tips. I’m actually have a book professionally critiqued now (I nabbed an awesome deal in a generous sale earlier this year) so I’m feeling a mixture of excitement and terror while I wait. But I know I’ll learn lessons now, for future projects.

X

Deborah Makarios

What will make me toss a book across the room is either an unlikable main character or unconvincing dialogue. Or even, God help us, both!

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[…] you’re considering editing and wonder about options, this post has them for you by Jami […]

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[…] we discussed two weeks ago, many stories “strike out” with readers in the first chapter. Jefferson Smith confirmed that fact in his Immerse or Die challenge, and I’ve found that […]

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[…] even after they understand, they have to reverse those events in their mind. That extra step means they’re no longer immersed in our story. Not […]

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[…] the importance of story openings many times here before, from how to avoid first-page clichés to what makes readers close a book. Grabbing readers’ attention is an important skill because if our story has a bad beginning, […]

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[…] I’ve discussed before, it’s not enough to rely on just copy editing. Jefferson Smith’s Immerse or Die study of story openings found that only 25% of the […]

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[…] (These differences in my willingness to forgive based on the type of problem are yet another reason why a story that’s only been copyedited hasn’t really been edited.) […]

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[…] It’s all fine and good to make sure readers have the information they need to understand the story, but the problem is with that “pressing pause” aspect. Readers come to us for the story, and if we stop the story in its tracks, readers can lose interest. (Backstory and info dumping are one of the top five reasons readers close a book.) […]

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[…] Jefferson is an indie author known for his Immerse or Die challenge on his blog. I wrote about Immerse or Die a couple of years ago in the context of how to make sure readers don’t close our book: […]

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[…] Jefferson Smith found in his “Immerse or Die” project, story-building and story-telling were 75% of what authors can get wrong—or right. As I mentioned in that […]

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Hi Jami!

I came across this post and have a question. I think you’ve mentioned Margie Lawson in your blog before. In the lecture packet for “Empowering Characters’ Emotions”, in her Welcome, Margie talks about anaphora: “Using the same phrase (or word) to kick off three (or more) sentences (or phrases) in a row. The repetition carries impact.”

As you mentioned in this post, Jefferson Smith’s “Immerse or Die” points out echoing words as a problem. It was one of the top 5 problems he encountered.

How do I balance between Margie’s anaphora and Jefferson’s echoing words?

As always, another great post (even if I’m reading it 2+ years later!)
Anne.

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[…] Specifically, Anne Kaelber asked: […]

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