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:
- weak mechanics (spelling, grammar, etc.)
- implausible character behaviors (out-of-character actions)
- echoing (words, sentence styles, or imagery that calls attention to itself)
- illogical world building (elements don’t hold up or make sense)
- 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
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?Pin It