What if you produced an eBook, and one word on almost every page, chosen at random, pulsated gently. What if you produced a paperback, and one random word in every thousand was a different colour.
I can just hear you now. “What a stupid thing to do!” “Why would anybody in their right mind do that?” and, “Why are you throwing distractions at the readers?”
And my answer is, “You’re doing it all the time.”
The intention of the writer of a novel is to guide readers into a dream-like state where the story comes alive in their minds, and they forget about everything else. Including – especially including – the fact that there is an author manipulating their emotions. Every time any reader is for any reason made aware of the presence of an author writing the story, that reader is tossed for a brief moment out of the emotional bond you have been working so hard to create.
So every time you have a grammar error, a POV slither, a convoluted sentence, or a cute word game, you flash a distraction in your reader’s way, a grain of sand in the gears of the machine, a little alarm that says “Wake up, wake up. This isn’t real.”
1. Stylistic Curlicues.
“He was wearing a suit and too much cologne.”
This is just cute. You’re playing with the language, and I know that’s all sorts of fun, but it jumps to the readers’ attentions as they appreciate the witty writer and forget where they are in the story. Sort of like being in the theatre and a character makes a witty speech, and the director of the play jumps up and takes a bow. Completely out of hand.
2. Proofreading and Editing Errors
“Alright. I’m coming.”
Yes, a lot of people use that (mis-)spelling, despite the fact (or perhaps in spite of the fact) that it is incorrect. I think some people use it as a special brand of rebellion. “We are independent young writers, and our readers don’t know any better and we don’t give a fig for your rules.” Well, you should give a fig, because if even 5% of your readers are saying, “This author doesn’t care enough to learn how to spell,” you’ve got a problem.
3. Get Your Facts Straight
“The atomic number of iron is 36.”
Sure, 95% of people don’t know whether that’s wrong or not. But if you’re writing Sci-Fi, you’re aiming at a pretty smart audience; many of them will know, and Wikipedia will tell the rest. Do your research. (If you care, Fe is Atomic No. 26)
The 5% Rule
If a small writing slip distracts or offends 5% of your readers, it is NOT okay. For most authors, 5% would be a great profit margin, and blowing your profits by misusing one adverb is pretty stupid, financially speaking.
And 5% is an arbitrary number. Even if you substitute “one” in the rule, it still applies. Selling books is a chancy business. You can’t afford to risk losing potential readers for silly reasons.
Who Are You Writing For?
Of course you aim most of your work at your target readership. But remember those other important people: reviewers, bloggers, and publicity sites. Even if your own little readership doesn’t mind the odd spelling mistake, remember that you’re in competition with serious writers who do take the time to do things right, and who are submitting their polished stories to those same critics.
Note that I did not say, “Make your writing boring and bland.” (Unless you’re writing textbooks, where that seems to be the operant technique.) Learn the expectations that readers of your genre have, and excel in those areas. Don’t excel in something your readers are not expecting. If you’re writing sonnets, you don’t keep sticking in a fifteenth line. If you do, you’re not writing sonnets, and you should label your poem as something else, and market it as such.
So if you’re writing Romance, then feel free to get all flowery and emotional. Throw a bit of that into a Hard Sci-Fi or a Roman Noir, and you’ll be laughed off the profit sheet.
You want to play with words, take up poetry. Poets are allowed to be show-offs. If you’re writing a novel, smooth it out. Disappear. Let your characters speak for you, and sit in the background modestly counting your royalties.