Writing that Irritates Readers

I recently wrote a blog on CUT THE FLAB and since then, I’ve been noting the various and sundry ways writers irritate readers—or perhaps I should say, this reader.


Going off-key on tone. This is when something just doesn’t feel right. It is especially likely when reading something supposedly set in an early time which contains language that is too modern. For example, a story is set in 1812 that contains references to teenagers and babysitting. It’s also common when using slang that is inappropriate to the time of the story or the age of the character: totally awesome, gag me with a spoon, and grody to the max scream the 1980s. An important part of tone is choosing the right form of a word—as in spittle if you want it to seem older, spit if you want it to be more modern.


writing irritates readers
Close but no cigar: Using the wrong word. Fiancé (masculine) versus fiancée (feminine). Blond (masculine) versus blonde (feminine)—although recently there is a trend toward going with blond for both. That/who: Use who for humans. “The man that walked in” is totally wrong. That should be for objects or animals, as in “The cat that ate the cream.” And/but: and connects two things that are in the same vein while but signals a turn. “She stifled a grin and spoke sympathetically” gives a different impression from “She spoke sympathetically but stifled a grin.” The former sounds sympathetic, the latter hypocritical.


Who/whom: whom always needs to be preceded by a preposition, such as by, for, of, to, etc. Who is without a preposition. So, “The man who came to dinner,” but “For whom the bell tolls.” Imply/infer: a speaker implies something but it’s the listener or observer who infers. Sit/set: a person, animal, or object sits in a resting position; sets is the act of putting something in that position. She sets the vase on the table and then it just sits there. What/which: “That what he would not dare” is wrong.


writing irritates readers
Redundant verbiage: I talked about this in the blog on flab, but here are some recent versions. Minutes/seconds don’t need modifiers: A brief second or a long minute are no-no’s. Expansive in the large magnitude. I resumed the previous ideas that…  I wanted to stomp the floor with my foot.


This sort of irritation can do much to undermine what is basically a good storyline or plot. On the other hand: This is Act Happy Week, so maybe it’s time to put irritation aside!