You’ve probably heard of Flow. It is that psychological state of perfect concentration that we fall into when our attention is completely absorbed in something, whether it is running, painting, reading, crafting or anything else that involves us completely.
As a writer, Flow is what you are after in your reader. You have probably felt it yourself. Remember those books that were so engrossing that you could lose hours at a time between the pages, and not notice?
The trouble is that when you are reading, the tiniest thing can jolt you out of it – from the cat meowing for its tea, to your baby crying to be picked up, or even something as small as the rain tapping against the window. As a writer you are up against this too-human tendency, and your job is to make sure that you do not add to the distractions.
This is why getting the nuts and bolts right is so important.
For example, have you ever come across a typographical error in a printed novel? It seems to be happening more and more these days, and I find I notice at least one in every novel I read. It is irksome. It makes you suddenly aware that you are in the act of reading a book, rather being so caught up in the action that you are in it with the characters, a part of the crowd.
I have judged a number of short story competitions in my time, and I never fail to be amazed at how writers fail to take account of this. Being aware of your readers’ flow can improve your writing immeasurably, and can make the difference between a prize and publication, or languishing at the bottom of the reject pile.
Its not just about presentation – lets face it, in this digital age, your work could be presented in any number of ways, so even if you make sure you conform to the industry standard of 12 point, double spaced text, (which I would always advise) your reader may not ultimately be consuming it that way. You can make the difference, and keep your reader in the moment, by observing a few simple rules:
1. Pay attention to punctuation. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference. Read your work aloud, and notice where you take a breath, or pause. That’s where a comma should go. Read a good book about it. You can’t do better than this one.
2. Don’t trust the spell checker. It can’t tell the difference between ‘passed’ and ‘past’, and that little difference could be enough to annoy your reader out of their flow, and maybe give up completely.
3. Get to grips with language. Knowing the meaning of words is really important, so don’t just take it for granted – Fanfiction writers, I am looking at you! Just because someone else uses the word ‘ravage’ instead of ‘ravish’, doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistake! (And ‘leisurely’ is not an adverb. Grrr!) When in doubt, look it up!
4. Don’t use overlong sentences. You aren’t Henry James. Thank God. Keep it to one or two clauses at most. Don’t ramble. Short sentences may increase the pace of your scene, but you can slow things down in other ways if thats what you want, through description and reflection.
5. Don’t repeat yourself. This is a private bugbear of mine, I have to confess. You don’t need to use the same word three times in a three line paragraph. You’ve got vocabulary – use it! If you want to understand how the breadth of language can be used to write a whole book about just one thing, avoiding repetition, read Patrick Süskind’s dazzling novel, ‘Perfume’. It proves you really don’t have to repeat yourself.
6. Proof read. And then do it again. And then get someone else to proof read for you. Seriously. There are so many typos and spelling mistakes (commonly referred to as ‘smelling mistakes’ in our house) that you often can’t see without help. (And now I am having a mini-nervous breakdown that there will be typos in this article that I haven’t seen – you see, we all do it, so beware!)
These are just a few simple things you can do to give your reader a smooth ride. If you do that, not only will they keep reading to the end, but they are far more likely to come back for more. And thats what you want!