The Journal: Glitches in Writing

In today’s Journal

* A Bit of Fun
* Topic: Glitches in Writing
* A Storyteller
* Of Interest

A Bit of Fun

For a bit of fun, check how well you really observe. See “The Changing Room Illusion” at It’s a very short video.

Topic: Glitches in Writing

This topic is based on James Scott Bell’s post (see “Of Interest”) and his question: “What little things bug you when you see them in a book?”

I’ve talked before about studying the language and the craft and using both to convey the story to the best of your current ability. That is the writer’s responsibility to the craft and to the reader. But not everyone gets that.

Back when I was presenting sessions on the use of the language or on the writing craft at writers’ conferences, I often heard the dismissive, “Oh well, the reader will know what I mean.” That usually was accompanied by a hand-wag and an equally dismissive chortle as the speaker glanced around to glean support from the other members of the audience.

S/he seldom noticed the support s/he sought was not forthcoming. But at that point I stopped talking to that person anyway because I knew I would only be wasting my breath.

The scenario happened so often that soon an image formed in my mind: a heinous, gargoyle-looking creature with a dullness about the eyes, its jaw slack, its blistered tongue protruding, and its upper and lower teeth exposed in a pretentious, self-righteous sneer.

I came to think privately of the ugly thing as “The Braying Jackass,” a mythical creature who attends lectures on craft, not to learn but to illustrate that s/he doesn’t need to learn. I define the creature as “one who speaks with pretentious certainty from a position of absolute ignorance.”

As I wrote earlier, the writer has a responsibility to convey what s/he means to convey. That is true whether or not the writer recognizes or accepts it. But the reader has no responsibility to decipher the writer’s meaning and make sense of the insensible. The reader’s only responsibility is to be entertained.

Here are a few of the problems I’ve seen most often. I noticed some while reading for pleasure (every time the glitch pulled me out of the story) and some when I was copyediting manuscripts for other writers.

When the writer

1. Uses verbs that are not a form of utterance used in dialogue tags.

I have a few hundred of those verbs in a list that I’ve collected over the years as a hobby, all culled either from my reading or from manuscripts I’ve copyedited. My favorite thus far is ejaculated,” as in “Put down that knife!” she ejaculated. Anything that will make the reader rock back in the chair and guffaw at a tense situation is not conducive to keeping the reader in the story.

2. Uses the phrase “sat and” or “stood and” when the character is already sitting or standing, plus, almost always, “reached over and”. Ugh.

You can almost always correct any of those by removing “sat, stood, or reached over and.” Often the rest of the sentence is fine. For example, “Mary Loo stood and gaped down at Michael. Had he really asked her to marry him?”

3. Uses gratuitous narrative, AKA the author standing-in for the character(s). This occurs anytime the author pokes through the story to take center stage. The writer should always stay on his or her own side of the keyboard.

Usually this happens when the author either getsg a little too full of himself and expresses an unnecessary (to the story) political opinion or slaps-on a thick layer of description because s/he heard in a class somewhere that description is necessary. Yet somehow s/he evidently missed the part about filtering the description through the POV character’s physical and emotional senses.

4. Protrays talking heads against a white background. Zero or minimal description of the setting, just dialogue.

This is probably the result of the “too much narrative” school. My rule of thumb: If the POV character sees, hears, smells, tastes or feels something, that should be included in the description. If s/he doesn’t, it shouldn’t. There is no room for description from the author (see #3 above), only from the POV character.

5. Tells me what the character sensed instead of letting me sense it for myself.

This is usually preceded by the character name (or she or he) plus a past- or future-tense sensory verb: saw, could see; heard, could hear; smelled, could smell; felt, could feel (physically or emotionally); or tasted, could taste. Again, ugh. Just don’t.

6. Uses only the sense of sight to describe the setting or events.

Apparently some POV characters have no sense of smell, taste, touch, or hearing. Either that or in the fictional world there are no smells, sounds, flavors or textures.

7. Uses “in” when s/he means “into.” (Bell himself did this in an example toward the end of his post.) It’s a small difference in spelling but a major difference in connotation.

If a character “drops a lipstick in her purse,” that means she herself was in the purse when she dropped the lipstick. She can drop a lipstick in the woods or in the jungle or in the desert or in the city, but she has to drop it “into” her purse.

(By the same token, in order to drop anything “into” the woods or the jungle or the desert or the city she would have to be flying over it.)

8. Assigns human traits to human sensory organs or human parts.

Examples of the former include “her eyes looked (or saw),” “her ears listened (or heard),” “her mouth tasted,” “her nose smelled,” and “her hands felt.” In every case, “her [sensory organ]” should be the character’s name or “she.”

Examples of the latter include “her legs raced down the street” or “his butt leaned against the ship’s rail” or “her back pressed against the wall” or “her palms and nose pressed against the window” etc.

That’s enough for now. How about you? What glitches bother you as you’re reading fiction?

A Storyteller

A friend and prolific writer emailed to recommend a storyteller she and her husband discovered on YouTube. I haven’t watched yet, but I will. You can find the storyteller at

Of Interest

See “Three Things That Bugged Me in a Book” at Also see the comments (other than mine).

See “Pace Yourselves” at A different look at pacing.

See “Animals think, therefore…” at An excellent article.

See “We patronize the animals” at Wow. Cool.

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

4 thoughts on “The Journal: Glitches in Writing”

  1. What bothers me most about reading is character descriptions that bring the story to a halt while we get a laundry list, top to bottom.

    The next thing is unnecessary dialogue tags – using words that add nothing to the story. I don’t care it readers skip “said.” They don’t have to if it’s not there! A certain number are necessary for avoiding confusion, especially in scenes with several characters talking, but it’s almost always something the writer can learn to avoid. The goal is lack of confusion, but a secondary goal is a sense of flow. As for using some of the ‘creative’ Tom-Swiftian tags – don’t.

    • Yep. I’ve always taught to use even the unobtrusive “said” as seldom as possible and only to avoid confusion.

      Usually when a character description bogs down the reading it’s because the author is poking his nose in instead of just letting the characters tell the story. Author intrusion is ALWAYS a bad idea.

  2. On the technical side, my biggest annoyance is a typo or wordo that changes the meaning of the sentence or otherwise results in confusion on my (the reader’s) part. I understand nothing is ever perfect, but one would think (hope?) that errors like that would be caught somewhere along the way.

    My second biggest annoyance on the technical side. An overabundance of sentence fragments. Once in a while, of course, a sentence fragment is absolutely necessary to convey a mood, feeling, or thought. But lately? Well, I haven’t quite seen an entire book written in sentence fragments, but I’m sure I will sooner or later, and most likely sooner.

    My overall biggest irritation comes in historical fiction when an author has characters reacting to situation X exactly like a modern person would without any justification or context to explain why the reaction is so different to what would have been the historical norm for situation X. To be clear, it’s not the reaction itself that bothers me as it is the lack of context, because if they lack historical context for situation X, how can I trust that they’ve researched anything else in their story?

    For the reader, this is a form of author intrusion. I’m just not sure the authors intend it that way or just haven’t grasped that the past is a different place and they did and thought things very differently than we do today.

    • Good comment, Peggy. Thanks. And again, I’ll point out my primary maxim: Anything story component—from unnecessary or embellished dialogue tag lines to too many sentence fragments in a row, anything that draws attention to itself—will pull the reader out of the story.

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