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Tell me when you stop*

One of the murder mysteries I read last week was Cheating at Solitaire, one of Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian novels. I was irritated by numerous slips in usage—principle for principal was one that recurred—but I continued to the end.

Last night, I was several pages into James W. Pennebaker’s Secret Life of Pronouns—already skeptical of his blithe assurance that his word-counting software can measure the emotional charge of texts even though it is incapable of distinguishing among the different meanings of individual words—when I came across this sentence: “In Aldous Huxley’s words, this was the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” It was Thomas Henry Huxley who said, “A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly, little fact,” and that was the point at which I put the book down and went to bed.

I am not here today to rail against publishers who go cheap on the copy editing, THOUGH THEY OUGHT TO BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES. What I am curious about is whether your reading patterns match my own. “The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading,” said Barney Kilgore of The Wall Street Journal seventy years ago. I want to know what makes you stop.

There are some automatic stopping points that are easy to spot: the point at which the writer first calls Barack Obama a socialist or suggests that Sarah Palin is not the mother of her Down syndrome child. Any talk of the Mayan calendar or the Rapture. If you’re older than sixteen, any mention of Justin Bieber.

We also know that the inverted-pyramid structure popularized by wire services, in which the most important information arrives in the first paragraph and becomes successively less immediate or important as the article proceeds, invites readers to stop reading as soon as they have had their fill. And they fill quickly.

And I know from a piece of drive-by praise a Very Senior Editor administered to a Sun reporter some years back—“I liked your story this morning. I read it all the way to the end”—indicates that my colleagues, like our readers, are accustomed to cutting their losses when reading our articles.

But I, as a semi-reformed stickler, get cranky when I see elementary lapses in grammar and usage or factual inaccuracies that it would have been simple to check. Mellower as I age, I seldom fling the newspaper across with room, accompanied by a good round oath, but I do feel the impulse to stop reading at those points, and it is only by an effort of will that I continue. That could be me. How about you?

I’m serious about this. As journalists compete for readers’ attention, we need some more secure ground of judgment as we write and edit than reporters’ giddy self-regard and assumption that our readers, like their mothers, lovingly caress every word. What are the burrs under your saddles?

 

*The first person who writes, “I stopped reading after the title,” will be clever. Subsequent ones, less so.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:15 PM | | Comments (33)
        

Comments

I will usually put the reading down when it become's clear the author or editor is infatuated with the use of apostrophe's in plural's.

In general, life is too short to read bad writing. If I must read it, say for work purposes, I find myself skimming as much as possible, as if chugging foul-tasting medicine.

One of my very first comments here was my story about *Paddy Whacked* and its horrific editing, which you were kind enough to comment on. The story was entertaining, so I finished it, but it was a struggle. I have left unread for 20 years the last 50 pages of *Anna Karenina*. That story ended after the train scene: I'm not sure there needed to be another hundred or so pages to wrap up. In a newspaper story or magazine article, I stop once the story becomes background unless I have some particular intrest. Books tend to get dropped if what passes for plot becomes graphic descriptions of bedroom antics instead.

I get bored with constant use of cliches and bumper sticker phrases. After a few pages I'm gone.

You realize, John, that you've just issued a challenge for someone to write something involving Justin Bieber that you would, in spite of yourself, read. :-)

In addition to the various things you mention, and because I do so much reading on the web, I have to stop reading if something is laid out so poorly that it hurts to read. (Literally: 8-pt white text on a black background, for example.)

I tend to stop reading a book when I realize that the only reason I'm still reading it is so I can count it on my official list of "books I've read".

I'll also toss a book that uses strong profanity. It is a rare tale that requires such to carry the plot.

And don't forget to visit Grammar.net to cast your vote for this fine blog!

John,

I stop reading when I notice egregious errors of spelling, grammar or punctuation. I can give anyone a typo; we're all human. But too many mistakes lead me to doubt your ability to craft a meaningful message that I'm willing to take the time to read. Writing mistakes damage the credibility of the writer and, therefore, the message. The blogosphere is rife with this problem, so I only frequent blogs (whatever the subject matter) where the writer demonstrates an understanding of the rules of grammar and punctuation.

The last book I remember putting down after a hundred pages or so was House of Cards, which concerned the failure of Bear Stearns in 2008. The author wrote well enough, but it was too much inside baseball for me. The author assumed the reader knew more about Wall Street than I did, so I stopped being a reader.

The last book I remember putting down before that was Wicked. I don't think I even made it to page 50. What a horribly written piece of dreck. Too precious and drab all at the same time, with not one memorably written passage. The musical of the same name, on the other hand, is a marvelous piece of story-telling (so good, I saw it twice at the Pantages in Hollywood).

And I'm with Fairchild on the profanity. That makes me drop a book like a hot potato. Maybe faster.

Cheers,
Tim

Something that I have noticed quite often in Sun online writing is the sudden authoritative quote by someone who is referred to only by an unrecognizable last name. These always appear more than halfway through the article and for quite awhile, I re-read the article in an attempt to identify this person. Now I just declare it done.

Since there will soon be a charge for reading online, it would certainly behoove the Sun to correct this issue.

I'm with Tim on Wicked, although friends loved it on Broadway and I thought I must be mis-reading to dislike it so.

Did anyone stop reading at "fling the newspaper across with room"?

Eve, the book and the musical share name but little else. See the one, throw the other in the ashcan.

Assuming I make it past the first ten pages, I don't readily put down a book, always hoping for some redeeming value in the plot, if not the writing.
I made an exception for The Known World, by Edward Jones. It's a soup sandwich, on every level.
Well received by the critics, though--sigh.

I stop when the hero and heroine leave a bank hidden in an armoured car driven by the bank president in order to escape the 2-meter albino masochistic far-right catholic cultist assassin with a limp. I can only take so many clichés at once before I need to check in for detox.

Normally I do persevere to the end with novels, though. Newspaper pieces I tend to skip and jump around rather than read the whole thing from beginning to the end. The predictable structure makes that easy and rewarding; it's a feature, not a bug.

As a newspaper editor, I read the hed; if it works, I read the lede. If that works, I read three or more grafs and stop at the background. As a fiction reader, I slog on for about 10 pages. If they don't work, I stop. Nonfiction: after the first dozen compound/complex sentences loaded with important words, same thing. Worst disapointment is picking up a book that got raves, only to have the aforementioned experiences. I hate to waste money or time on bad stuff.

I will confess that I could not go on after three volumes (out of 7) of Remembrance of Things Past--just too much introspection for me. Maybe a car chase would have kicked it up a notch?

I stop reading when I notice that I'm just reading the writing, not the story.

What I think Huxley wrote, in the 1870 essay "Biogenesis and Abiogenesis," is: "But the great tragedy of Science–the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact–which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of philosophers, was played, almost immediately, for the benefit of Buffon and Needham." You may have another citation. Or is it just misattribution that is bothersome? In either case, I didn't stop.

Grammar errors, tpyos, and the like don't usually make me stop reading, unless it's bad enough to be unintelligible. If the writing is repetitive, full of cheap cliches, or too general (using lots or words without saying anything), I stop, no matter what the topic.
(I'm curious what an example of "a good round oath" would be.)

When I was in high school and college, I was told that certain writers must be read. I slogged through Dickens' "Little Dorrit," one or two by Faulkner and something by James, among others. I felt virtuous because I endured. Maybe the chemistry weasn't there, but still...

Really bad writing has a sort of car-crash effect, leaving me unable to tear my eyes away as I try to absorb the awfulness of the prose. (Isn't that how most literate people get through Dan Brown novels?) Likewise, bad spelling and improper usage can take on a comic effect that often mitigates the ugliness sometimes found online. Just as dogs are forgiven for barking because they don't know any better, it's hard to credit the corrosive opinions of someone who can't put together a coherent sentence.

In actual journalism, I tend to stop in news stories at the point where there appears to be more text than story. Opinion pieces get skimmed when it becomes apparent that the author has no interest in variations and is merely restating the theme. Features I abandon when the subject matter becomes secondary to the author's ostensibly clever prose.

The only writer whose work I regularly abandon mid-article is Adam Gopnik. His work strikes me as a toxic combination of know-it-all snottiness and look-at-me wordplay, and I'm especially sick of reading about his kids. But we all have our peeves, right?

@Tim:

The book was at least brain candy, but the musical was dreadful (and I got to see Idina Menzel!). My girlfriends loved it: I was just there for the margaritas. They made me sit through DreamGirls, too.

Excess exposition will put me off quickly ("As you know, Bob, the Makarov is a medium-size, straight blowback action, frame-fixed barrel handgun"). But serious factual errors will kill a book for me.

I get annoyed by gross ignorance of readily checkable facts. I once gave up on a novel when it dexcribed a chess position in which neither player had a king. Another writer lost me by locating the battle of Antietam in Virginia.

Really bad prose can also turn me off, but that can be salvaged by interesting material and/or plot. Flat-out ignorance is unsalvagable.

Ol' Scrapiron,

I'm rather intrigued by the notion of a chess game with no king. By any chance, do you remember the name of that book?

J. D. Considine,

Can't really say I have quite the degree of 'peevishness' for Adam Gopnik's writings, (principally appearing in The New Yorker since the mid-'80s), as you. Yet I would have to admit that i've abandoned a good number of seemingly interminable feature articles in the aforementioned publication, over the years. Many of the essayists I essentially gave up on weren't exactly in the 'chopped-liver' category either........ by any stretch of the imagination.

I've never subscribed to The New Yorker, and frankly , of late, have likely read more articles while waiting to see my doctor, or dentist, than from an actual copy from my local newsstand, or chain bookstore. Those waiting room waits can sometimes be a d-r-a-g. (Ugh!)

It would appear that most folks these days don't really have the luxury of unlimited time to plod thru some of those marathon length New Yorker opuses. Thank god for the occasional B&W one-panel cartoon, or graphic spot drawing to break up the visual monotony of an otherwise sea of copy. (I don't think they even use pull-quotes to break up the page, like most other high-profile magazine)

One scribe who has written for many decades for The New Yorker, and whom I do so admire, is the non-fiction essayist, John McPhee.

I never tire of his consistently engaging, highly informed and informative writing style. For me, he's the epitome of the eclectic story teller, having waxed 'prosetic' on almost every conceivable subject under the sun (a little hyperbole there); and now, well into his 'golden years,' still pens w/ passion, seeming unflagging curiosity, and a constant keen instinct for detail and factual truth, both through his books and essays.

Recently, a friend loaned me his copy of a McPhee compilation of eight essays from the early '80s called "Table of Contents". For me the constant thread of McPhee's work is his tacit acknowledgment of the humanness in our human species, and man's vital connection to the world around us, particularly the natural world.

One of my all-time favorite McPhee books was his 1967, "Oranges". After I read that eye-opening book maybe twelve years ago, I swear I've never looked at any orange quite the same ever since. HA!

ALEX

Laura Lee -- it was one of the Arthur C. Clarke/Gentry Lee "collaborations." I think it might have been one of the "Rendezvous with Rama" sequels, but that was a good number of years ago. Whatever the title, it was enough to cure me of the urge to read any more by that particular partnership.

As an English major, I was compelled to read many books to the end when I would not have done so voluntarily. As a result, my tolerance level is now pretty low. I lasted five minutes with Dan Brown. OTOH, I totally agree with Alex on anything by John McPhee.

Yes. John McPhee is readable on any subject (even fishing, something in which I have zero natural interest).

In college I duly read everything assigned, start to finish, plus a lot of the supplementary readings--except for Milton. I could not abide Milton.

The wrong use of were/where/wear or their/there stops me cold.

As someone who edits what others write for a living, I try to keep reading no matter what, but if I see the wrong use of the above words in a newspaper, book and/or online article, I'm done. The writer has lost credibility with me.

I have the gift of reading quickly and yet thoroughly, and so rarely stop; it just doesn't cost me that much time to finish a book. There are exceptions, though.

(I do not count glancing through a book and deciding not to read it at all as stopping, to be sure.)

What stops me is not so much what I read but the frame in which I read it. I'm willing to forgive the City Paper a few gaffes but the same careless errors on the front page of the Washington Post gets my color up. Yet the Post finds a way to irratate me thus at least several times a week.

Like Erin, I tend to skim articles. Compulsion leads me to finish most books I start, no matter the quality. If I drop a novel, it's likely to be due to the aforementioned language and sex issues. Non-fiction books lose me after two or three unsubstantiated "facts," or when it becomes clear that the author has written a book only as a platform for selling something.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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