I received a fascinating email the other day from, to put it politely, a strange person who fancies himself a writer. He was ranting about someone who stole his novel idea more than a decade ago. Evidently this is a long-running concern and he constantly emails people about it, claiming to have new proof which will finally break open the conspiracy keeping him down.
I'm not sure why he decided to gift me with his rant--he probably spams people around the world with his cries for attention. But if his email is any indication of his writing ability, he ought to beg people to steal his ideas. Because that's the only way he'll ever receive any attention as a writer.
I mean, damn, you couldn't even read this email. Each paragraph was dense and convoluted, with non sequiturs assaulting bad similes and analogies until you wondered if this was written by those mythical monkeys banging on a typewriter. Except a million of them hadn't produced Hamlet--they'd merely caused me to stop reading this person's email.
Much has been made of late about tipping points, that moment when a "previously rare phenomenon becomes rapidly and dramatically more common." While this term is most often applied to larger sociological concepts like the stock market and mob mentality, I believe it also applies to individuals and how they read.
Call it the tripping point, for the moment when someone trips over too much bad writing and refuses to read a sentence more.
For example, when I opened that person's email I was initially curious as to why this fellow believed someone had stolen his novel idea. While such occurrences are rare, they are the stuff of writer nightmares, so I decided to read on. Never mind that the first paragraph of his email didn't make a lot of sense--I was determined to discover what was going on here.
But then I tripped over the second poorly organized paragraph. Irritated, I scanned the email but didn't see the information I was searching for. As a result I refused to read any more and deleted the rant.
Readers will tolerate bad writing only up to a certain point. A few typos won't doom your story with a reader, but add in too many grammatical flip-flops and the moment quickly comes when readers drop your story. If you have set up a beautiful character in your novel but have her do something strikingly out of character, a reader may throw your book across the room and never return--even if the reader has invested hours into reading your novel. Likewise if your story loses its internal logic, or ignores basic elements of plot structure or pacing.
While I'm focusing on the tripping point in fiction writing, the concept applies to all areas of writing--be it a short story, a novel, anemail, an essay, a report, or a grocery list. That's why one of the best ways to improve your writing is to reread your work as if you are a new reader approaching these words for the first time. Try to push any background knowledge or information on the subject from your mind and read your writing with fresh eyes.
Anyone else ever encountered a tripping point in someone's writing? What made your throw down that book or delete an email and refuse to read any more?
Note: This post was edited in response to feedback from several readers.